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Five days had passed — five days of her coming to the gate of the sect and staring forlornly at the revenant tied up outside it. The Elders were at least not the callous sort, and were also keeping an eye out to prevent the approach of yao, thieves, and unwanted weather.
Without the soothing nightly melody of the erhu, Zhao Yi had found herself unable to sleep. After the first night, her father had taken up the erhu and began to play it to her to sleep. It wasn’t nearly the same thing, as he lacked the ghostly aura of the spectral instrument, didn’t do the same tune, and wasn’t as much of an expert in it (it was hard to beat what was likely centuries of experience fine-tuning one song, so, no blame there), but his presence alone had been helping, regardless.
Other than that, life had gone on as normal, except that she had been staring longingly at the one that had once been her bedtime lullaby. More important than the lullabies, though, was that she really wanted to know what the erhu player’s deal was!
Why had they played that song on end? What significance did it have? Why could she hear it, if they weren’t actually a ghost? Why had they been in Everice? How had they gotten in? How had they gotten out? Who were they? What were they? What did they want?
But, could she ask them any of those questions? Yes, technically, but she wouldn’t be getting any response, because the revenant was frozen straight through! And since Everice’s ice was nearly-forever, their only option was to wait for the sun to melt it, because regular fire wouldn’t work, they refused to bring the revenant into the sect where array-powered heat was, and said that they were ‘too poor’ to hire someone with a high enough fire root to melt it for them.
Bah! Phooey! Ridiculous! Everice ice resisted heat! That was the entire point of it! They might as well be waiting around for the sky to fall down! The area they were in was semi-mountainous, cold, and always overcast, with the sect itself half-hidden in caves, so what heat was even around?! The sun itself hated coming over here! If they weren’t cultivators, they would have frozen and dried-out to death the very first winter they had come here!
She was in the middle of complaining about the adults in her life being bad at problem-solving, staring at the revenant bound in red ropes, when an answer rode right on up the main road leading into the sect.
First, she heard the unmistakable sound of hooves against rock; a horse was coming up the dirt road, trampling the rocks embedded into it that no one had ever bothered to dig up. From how non-chaotic the sound was, there was only one horse.
Zhao Yi looked out, curious, as did the few followers that were keeping watch on the gates, though their gazes were more tense.
The steed and rider eventually came into view, allowing the guards to calm down.
The steed: a massive, pitch-black horse with white feathered feet and a just-as-white nose, its long mane and tail tied into multiple braids to prevent tangles. Its single odd components were the shiny black wings tucked up against its sides — one pair placed behind its forelimbs, the second pair in front of his hindlimbs — that obscured the legs of the human riding it.
The rider: a young-looking woman dwarfed in size by the beast she was riding, donned in black, blue-trimmed robes that fit her form and lacked frippery, her own hair made into a simple braid. There was also a small pack on her back that couldn’t have contained much. Though it was turned away from Zhao Yi due to the horse having to come in from her relative right-side direction, she knew that the woman’s right entire arm was sleeveless, dark black, and tipped with thick, straight, and equally-black claws on its fingers. The reason she knew that was because the woman was her ever-recognizable Auntie Min Kaijing, the head of Blackblood Manor and long-time friend of her mother’s.
Blackblood Manor had been named so due to all of its residents literally having black blood, a side-effect of being infected with a specific type of gu in an incident involving dark cultivators over sixty years before. Auntie Min had always glossed the event over on Zhao Mao’s request, but the gist of it had been that a great many of Clear Lake Hall’s disciples, while on their way to some convention, had been ambushed by the then-loathed Bloodmorphers, masters of breeding a certain variety of horrible airborne gu. Said gu were known as veinticks, and specialized in infiltrating their victims’ bloodstreams, then changing the properties of their blood, which included, but weren’t limited to, making it acidic so that it rotted people from the inside out, coagulating it while they were still alive, and forcing it to seep out of everyone’s orifices.
Thus, the disciples had accidentally breathed in the gu, then been killed, the details of which Min Kaijing had never shared. After the disciples and their guardians had died, the Bloodmorphers apparently hadn’t had enough bloodshed, and had proceeded to mutilate their corpses — Auntie Min had not shared details about that, either. As the ambush had happened near the Bloodmorphers’ base, the villains had decided to throw the bodies into a rare rotlake, where the dark cultivators had grown the gu in the first place, with the intent of feeding the gu.
Unfortunately for the Bloodmorphers, doing that had been an extremely stupid idea. Their sect had been very recently established based on the highly unpopular gu-keeping lifestyle, so they hadn’t had decades or even centuries of trial and error like many other sects did. Hence was why they had had no idea that throwing human bodies full of veinticks into a pool full of corrupted qi would be a terrible idea.
First of all, the rotlake was not their friend; it was a body of water containing corrupted qi, and all it ‘wanted’ was more chaos. Second of all, human bodies were rife with the capability to make more yang qi when living, and yang qi was much more chaotic than yin-charged qi. Third of all, the reason why gu-keeping wasn’t popular was that because they were bugs made of or changed with personal qi, and they had the brains and loyalty of bugs — in other words, none at all. Fourth of all, veinticks were only supposed to get a limited amount of corrupted qi to form, because once they got over a certain threshold, they began to mutate into something else. Fifth of all, after veinticks ‘bonded’ to a human victim, they were supposed to die, but since the Bloodmorphers had been in a big goddamn hurry, the gu had been reintroduced to the source of their mutations before they died. This freak combination of factors had resulted in the veinticks — rather than dying or harming their new hosts — switching affiliations in order to keep their hosts, and themselves, alive.
The veinticks had been overdosed on the corrupted qi, which had changed them into bigger, more capable versions of themselves. As they had already held abilities to transform a victim’s blood properties, that ability expanded to their entire bodies, and as those victims had instead turned into mutually-beneficial hosts for them, they had come to be in-tune with the human bodies’ qi and souls, which all basically meant that the veinticks had quickly begun to fix and restore their new hosts to life, for the sake of saving their own buggy selves.
Of course, as they were indeed bugs, they hadn’t exactly gotten everything correctly the first time. They had stitched together torn flesh with new, black flesh, resulting in skin with black, jagged, unsightly marks, making them look hardly better than particularly ghastly scar tissue. Gouged-out eyes had been replaced with pure black orbs, and typically hadn’t been usable; the same had gone for any other fine senses. Limbs, if found, had been reattached, but generally to the wrong owners, and if a limb had not been located properly by the veinticks, they had simply constructed new limbs — Min Kaijing’s bizarre monster hand, for example. According to her, her actual arm had been mistakenly welded to one of her sectmates.
The story after that was long, involving the newly-resurrected disciples rising from the Pool, killing every single Bloodmorpher, and forming the Manor. The main point was that Min Kaijing had a weird arm, blood that was black because it was full of bugs, and immortality plus inhuman toughness granted from said bugs changing her physiology.
In Zhao Yi’s opinion, though, Auntie Min was just Auntie Min. All this other stuff made her sound cooler and scarier than she was.
She had to resist the urge to dart out the sect’s gates and run up to the woman; the children were told to never ever go past the protective arrays, because yaos were quick and vicious. Upon realizing that Min Kaijing was, in fact, traveling completely alone, she found that strange, as Blackblood Manor typically came in trading convoys, and Min Kaijing herself would typically meet them in Ole-Mang’e instead of the sect itself; what business could she possibly have alone?
Once Min Kaijing sidled up towards the gates, the guards called out hello to her, not even bothering with any sort of customs. There was no need to, since she was the leader of the Manor that brought economy to the hiding sect. She stopped next to Zhao Yi, looking down at her from up on her tianma, Xunya. “Hey, Yi’r. What’s with that horror out front?”
Ah, yes, the revenant. It really didn’t look like a nice decoration, out there. “I told you about how I hear an erhu every night, right? That’s the player.”
Min Kaijing blinked, then looked over her shoulder at the revenant again. “It is indeed wearing an erhu… but I feel like I’m missing a lot of story, here.”
“Yeah… it came out of Everice, but the Elders won’t let it into the sect, and it can’t talk because its throat is frozen? So they sealed it out here and won’t let it in.”
The woman turned back to her, one brow raised. “Everice?”
Zhao Yi nodded.
“Hm. And no one in the sect has a second- or first-degree fire root to heat it up.”
The girl nodded again. The vast majority of cultivators had no elemental roots at all, while the secondmost majority had weak five-element roots, the thirdmost had less-weak four-element roots, and so forth. The purer one’s roots for an element were, the stronger they were with said element, with two- and one-element roots being the rarest, and the strongest. Elemental roots weren’t need to be a great cultivator, of course, and many who had the appropriate roots would simply not be cut out to follow their path in other categories, but control over the elements was rarely a bad thing to have.
In other words, not having a particularly strong practitioner of a certain root around was extremely common in even large and powerful sects, to say nothing of a smaller sect like theirs.
“Well, you’re in luck, little lady.” Min Kaijing grinned a bit smugly, and Zhao Yi immediately grew suspicious. “Want to hop on Xunya and explain everything to me while I ride to your Sect Leader’s place?”
Zhao Yi narrowed her eyes at her sly grin, but a tianma ride was too tempting an offer to resist.
Xunya clopped through the hard dirt streets of the sect slowly, letting everyone marvel at its majesty. While Zhao Yi was detailing all of what had happened to Min Kaijing, the woman’s eyes kept flitting in between the houses and homes. Once the explanation was done, she apparently had to comment. “It’s been a decade, yet your sect is still a hovel.”
Zhao Yi looked over at the ‘hovels’. Ten years ago, the Revivers had had to escape persecution by moving to the edge of Xing, the strictly non-cultivator territory of the Zhaun Dynasty, which was headed by the god-like Shining Emperor. The reason they had chosen this remote location was that it just brushed the edge of the Guardians’ range, both deterring their enemies and not alerting the Guardians to a breach in protocol.
As a result of their hasty move, however, the sect had been built haphazardly, and with scavenged materials, resulting in it looking like slums instead of any sort of proper living space. Compared to Ole-Mang’e, it was… bad-looking, honestly.
“All that money from the red chamomile, and they still haven’t built proper housing…”
Ah. Zhao Yi didn’t quite understand this one, but red chamomile was a weird strain of chamomile that was a hundred times more potent than regular chamomile, but, in exchange, was a hundred times more finicky. It required specific growth conditions that the Reviver sect happened to match. Min Kaijing had offered it to them as a source of income back in the day; it wasn’t a huge moneymaker, but it helped them all get by.
Min Kaijing huffed in annoyance. “Wonder what excuse your Sect Leader has cooked up this time.”
This time? Zhao Yi cocked her head to the side, but she wasn’t sure what the other was referring to. Had she butted heads with Huailu Cong before?
The rest of the ride was spent with Zhao Yi giving Auntie Min updates on her life, though the woman did not offer up much of what she herself was doing. Once they arrived at the Sect Leader’s courtyard, Min Kaijing helped her off of Xunya, releasing her back into the wild to do whatever it was kids did.
Zhao Yi deigned to return to her own home, where her parents were occupied with everyday chores. They had, of course, heard about Min Kaijing’s parade through the sect. Zhao Yi informed them of what she had discussed with her; Ji Wei appeared to be minorly miffed, while Zhao Mao just sighed with some weariness.
“Your Aunt means well,” her mother said, “she just doesn’t see things the way we do. We all want nicer living quarters, and we probably do have the funds for it, but the gathering of materials plus construction would draw too much attention that we can’t afford.”
“She should mind her own business,” Ji Wei grumbled.
“That’s the thing. She thinks this is her business, and it genuinely kind of is. Almost all the money the sect has gotten these years is from her help alone. She’s practically our godmother.”
“That is no mother of mine.”
Ji Wei grumbled a bit more, but didn’t say anything comprehensible. For some reason, Zhao Yi’s normally mild-mannered father would always turn a bit cold whenever it came to Auntie Min. She had never been sure why, and was honestly too afraid to ask. Her elders had tended to drill into her head that the business of grown-ups was their business alone, things not meant for her to know.
Her parents shooed her away to her studies, now that her daily visit to see her revenant friend was done, so study she did, until a familiar face came knocking several hours later.
Min Kaijing, the reins for Xunya held in her monster-looking hand, led her tianma into the Zhao courtyard after being let in (begrudgingly) by Ji Wei. Zhao Yi and her mother were significantly more enthusiastic about the woman’s appearance, the latter gladly setting up a table and fetching tea, allowing her daughter to sit and chat with her Auntie.
On account of her being immortal, in spite of Min Kaijing looking around twenty-five at most, her true age was somewhere between eighty and ninety. As the lady herself had described before, the veinticks had made it so that instead of needing to sleep, all those infected with them needed to absorb corrupted qi from the rotlake, and only eat and drink at a highly reduced rate. As such, Blackblood Manor had been constructed near that lake so the infectees could absorb that qi in day-to-day life, and thus have plenty stored up to act outside of the Manor for extended periods of time. A major consequence of this was that they were a bunch of old people with infinite time on their hands, the abysses of sleep and cultivation rendered pointless by their cheaply-gained immortality.
All of these hundred-or-so bored elders had picked up various occupations and/or hobbies and/or obsessions to fill their time with, some more mundane than others. Min Kaijing’s personal ‘vices’ were tea tourism, which put her out of the sect a lot of days in order to find the finest and strangest teas the various lands had to offer, and, for some indiscernible reason, history books.
The woman’s love for history transcended geography, mysticism, and probably the constraints of propriety, to a certain extent. She had absorbed a vast amount of tomes about Xing’s history, Yan’s various dynasties, pre-Wrath tales, anecdotes with iffy credibility, pure legends, unverified hearsay, the annals of sects both current and dead, reclusive jing settlements, mythology of influential tribes, mythology of tribes practically no one had ever heard of, folktales of various localities, and so much more, it would make a normal person’s head spin. As a bonus, she pretty much never forgot any of it, either; she claimed that her memory had never been that good before the veinticks came into play, so she chalked up her good memory to them.
(Zhao Yi had never mustered up the courage as to how, exactly, the veinticks worked. To be completely honest, she would probably forever be okay with not knowing.)
In short, Auntie Min’s brain was full of very interesting stories and tidbits of knowledge, which Zhao Yi never tired of listening to.
Quite unfortunately, though, Min Kaijing appeared to not be in the mood for storytelling. Her face was blank — it typically was, in contrast to her animated voice — and her eyes looked contemplative as they stared at the table’s surface. Her answers to Zhao Yi’s questions were half-unsatisfactory, distracted, and the girl eventually gave up, sitting in silence for the short moments before her mother came back with the tea.
“So, Sister,” Zhao Mao said as she sat down, waving for Ji Wei to come join them at the table. “What brings you to the sect today, and to grace our humble home?”
Min Kaijing’s gaze very deliberately shifted to a particular section of the courtyard’s wall that was on the brink of collapse. It was quite representative of a lot of the sect. “Humble’s a word for it.”
“Ah. You spoke to the Sect Leader again?”
“Hm. She refuses to fix anything, and refuses to move. I’ve even offered a space nearby the Manor, but she rejects everything. It’s nothing new.” Min Kaijing picked up her cup of tea with her non-clawed hand, then took a sip. Her tea-fanatic face was as blank as ever, making it unclear what she thought of the blend. “There was something else I came over here for that we’ve actually managed to come to an agreement on, though.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
Zhao Yi perked up a little. Min Kaijing rarely ever came into the sect itself like this, typically coming over and waiting for the Zhao’s outside the sect, then bringing them over to the nearby Ole-Mang’e to spend time together. Her connection with the sect was limited to her friendship with Zhao Mao, and her role as its initial financial benefactor, the latter thing she never cashed in on. Beyond that, Huailu Cong and her basically never saw eye-to-eye, if the results of all the talks they’d ever had were anything to go off of. What could they have possibly agreed upon?
“Something serious, that she’s entrusted me with delivering the news of myself.” Min Kaijing took another sip. Well, apparently she didn’t hate the, uh…whatever this blend was, else she would have probably set it down. “First of all, the Manor is in the area because of something the Emperor requested of us; there’s been fluctuations of malaised qi coming from Everice, and he asked us to check it out. Your esteemed Sect Leader’s informed me that the revenant scaring away all the animals just outside happened to come out of Everice, and only seems to listen to Yi’r, here.”
“Manor Lord Min,” Ji Wei finally spoke up. “Are you implying that our thirteen-year-old daughter should be going with you into unknown territory?”
“…Well, no. I was going to ask her if it was possible to get the revenant to listen to me, so that we can get inside the Mountain the same way it came out of.”
Here it was! Her opportunity! Auntie Min surely had a solution to her problem! “Actually—”
“That’s not possible,” Zhao Mao spoke over her. “Revenants can only listen to Revivers. Even if it’s commanded to listen to you, it won’t be able to ‘hear’ you, so to speak.”
“…” Great. What am I supposed to do when an elder interrupts me? Interrupt them back?
“Alright,” Min Kaijing answered, “but I still need a way to get into Everice, and that revenant is the best way to go, right now. Huailu Cong said that Yi’r isn’t actually bound to it, so who is?”
Another opportunity, maybe? “It can’t ta—“
“No one is,” her mother interrupted, yet again. “The revenant can’t speak. Its throat is presumably frozen up, which we can’t fix.”
“Mn, I heard about that from Yi’r already. Lucky for all of you, that’s no longer a problem.” Min Kaijing deliberately paused there, taking another sip of her tea. “I happen to be a fire-metal root.”
Well, good. At least Zhao Yi was getting what she wanted, even though she got interrupted twice by her own mom. Hmph…
“What? Since when?” Zhao Mao asked the questions Zhao Yi also had, and finally decided to take a sip of the tea. Unfortunately, her qi face was terrible, as she grimaced slightly, hence confusing Zhao Yi as to whether the tea blend was actually good, or trash.
“Since always. Few of us use our elemental powers much anymore, as the rotlake stuff usually makes them go haywire. I’d be able to keep mine well enough together for long enough to melt some piddly ice, though.” Min Kaijing propped her head up with her hand against the table, gaze sneakily passing between the other three. “I hope someone other than Yi’r can get control of the revenant. Otherwise… well, I suppose I have some more news you might not like.”
“What? That you’ll take Yi’r straight into danger?” Ji Wei asked, bristling.
“She wouldn’t be in danger, there’s a crowd of us waiting back at Ole-Mang’e for the mission. That isn’t what I’m talking about, but it is related to her.”
Zhao Yi startled a little. Bad news, related to her? Why? She straightened up, practically perking up her ears.
“Yi’r’s condition is one that actually a lot of people know about, but hers has flown under public knowledge due to your sect’s secrecy, as well as its subdued effect. It also hasn’t brought her any harm because of your good parenting… don’t give me that look. I’m not buttering you up, this is honesty, here. I’m telling you this to preface why I didn’t put two and two together until recently.
“About five months back, I took a trip to the coastal Dynasty of Su, since I heard that someone was an avid collector of obscure history books and I wanted to buy copies off of him. One of them was a pretty up-to-date volume recording known instances of people with inborn powers, across several different countries, major tribes, and sects, and taking into account. What stood out to me is that the compiler noticed that there were a lot of different kinds of powers, but that they tended to pop up multiple times. The different cases were thus separated into categories based on what powers there were. I flipped through it, and just so happened to see that there was a section for children that could hear ghosts.”
Zhao Yi perked up, ignoring whatever reactions her parents were having. “Me?”
“Yep, you. Or at least kids similar to you.” Min Kaijing then sat back in her chair, crossing her arms. “There’s about thirty instances written down. If the children weren’t murdered out of fear by their own town or family, they would all end up suddenly getting weaker and weaker as they grew older, until they got so weak, they died in their sleep.”
At that, Zhao Yi’s eyes widened, and a chill prickled all throughout her skin. Shooting a look at her parents, she saw Ji Wei looking quite obviously concerned, while Zhao Mao looked tense.
“Don’t panic until I’m finished, you all,” Min Kaijing said, waving her hand nonchalantly. “I knew better than to take a random book at face value, so I decided to go and verify the book’s description of the one exception to the rule; Tang Guangpiao’s disciple, Yin Shun, who lived to the heart age of fifty before dying of… oh, right. You might not know this, Yi’r, but Tang Guangpiao is the Emperor’s Right Chancellor, and a friend of mine. Me getting into contact with her was nothing hard.
“Anyways, I went over to the palace and asked her about it. Turns out, it was completely true; two hundred years ago, she had picked up Yin Shun as a disciple from a town in Xing after his parents gave him up due to his powers, and she studied his constitution for years. She discovered that when he turned seventeen, his body spontaneously and gradually started producing yin qi instead of yang qi, which was slowly killing him. She managed to think up a way to reverse the yin qi production and let him live for a few decades more, until he died in a duel.
“She got curious as to why I was asking right then, so I kind of had to spill about Yi’r. She easily gave me the method she used, but, well…” The woman took a piece of paper out of a pocket in her sleeve, then slid it across the table to the other two adults. “The materials it uses are prohibitively expensive for this locality, as well as required regularly. I already went over things with your Sect Leader; even if they broke into those funds they’ve been hoarding for a decade, it wouldn’t be enough for a year’s worth of treatments.”
Zhao Mao had since taken the paper and looked over it with Ji Wei. Both of their faces held near-identical looks of consternation at its contents.
“Are you certain that Yi’r is one of these, Sister?” Zhao Mao said, setting the page back down. “It’s… possible that this is just a coincidence. How can you be sure that she has the same affliction?”
“Chancellor Tang said that Yin Shun’s meridians were opened before he ever started cultivating, just like her. On top of that, she said that his meridians always had a strange property to them, like they always had a thread of yin qi flowing through them even before the sickness set in. Does that sound familiar?” Min Kaijing asked, watching the other two on-and-off.
The other two went quiet. Zhao Yi knew why; they had told her as much about her own meridians before, when they had examined the extent of her powers so many years ago.
She felt her stomach twist up.
“I could be wrong. It’s not like I’m an expert, or that it’s a well-known field of study, but I think it’d be better safe than sorry, when it comes to Yi’r.”
A short moment of silence stretched out, until Zhao Mao spoke at last, sounding uncharacteristically defeated. “…What do we do, Kaijing?”
“There’s an offer available from Chancellor Tang herself.” Min Kaijing stopped looking at the adults, and turned her black eyes towards Zhao Yi. “If Yi’r’s willing for it, Tang Guangpiao expressed some excitement at having another student like Yin Shun under her wing.”
Those words rattled around in Zhao Yi’s head a bit the second they came out. “Student? Me?” she answered, too numb to say much else.
“Now, hold on there,” Ji Wei said, seeming like he was about to jump out of his seat, “neither of us, as her parents, have agreed to this!”
“The only other options are to bleed your sect dry from medical costs, which you may not even be allowed to have, or have a dead daughter, Mr. Ji,” Min Kaijing responded, voice indifferent, yet practically stabbing him with her words. “The reason I didn’t send Yi’r away for this in the first place was because she deserves to know of her own fate, and decide on it.”
He bristled, glaring at her in pure anger. Before he could argue with her, Zhao Mao grabbed his arm, compelling him to stuff everything he was going to say back down.
“Sister Min, what would the details of her becoming the Chancellor’s student be?” Zhao Mao asked, smiling gratefully… or trying to, at least. It was kind of strained.
“She’ll go to the palace, acknowledge Tang Guangpiao as her teacher, and the Chancellor will monitor her condition, as well as pay for the medication, in exchange for studying her and trying to develop an even better method. She’ll further be allowed to take supplementary tutors along with her for her Reviver cultivation, since Chancellor Tang doesn’t teach cultivation at all. The palace has no need for money, so it would provide for everything. Also…”
Min Kaijing’s lips quirked down, brow slightly raised. “They might very well hire you as a lackey when you’re older, like me.”
Zhao Yi absorbed everything that was happening dumbly, because she had been hit by way too many increasingly-dumbfounding things in too short of a conversation. First, Auntie Min revealed that she had random powers, then that Zhao Yi herself basically had limited time left in the world, then that some powerful lady wanted her to take as a disciple all of a sudden, which, judging from what she knew of how the world worked, would also mean that she would be leaving the Reviver sect for a really, really long time..
Min Kaijing peered at Ji Wei’s enraged face, then at Zhao Mao’s troubled one, then at Zhao Yi’s likely confused-looking one (the girl herself had no idea, but she could feel her face cramping from the way she was twisting it up). “Your Sect Leader readily agreed to this, already. All that’s left is Yi’r’s approval… and it really seems like she needs time to think.”