SnCr 6

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They arrived back at the vicinity of the Deng Estate, the dark quiet of the night enveloping them, with the clack of horseshoes against bricks the sole interrupting sound. Zhongling had a strict nightly curfew set for as soon as the sun’s rays vanished from the sky, and no one — not even the beggars, street urchins, or prostitutes typically lining the streets — was allowed to be out at night. Restaurants would only allow takeout when it came too close to sunset, and brothels would lock their customers in until the sun began to rise from the east.

This peculiarity was unique to Zhongling. Curfews were commonplace in anything bigger than a sleepy village, of course, but in all of Zhu Li’s travels, he had never come across any as strict and particular as this. His practice run out of Chu Ran’s house, for example, was exceedingly popular during the day, but once the sun set, his patients would drop to zero. He didn’t exactly mind having nights to himself, but nighttime visits had never been an oddity anywhere else, and all of his visits to Zhongling had been much of the same.

Of course, he had asked long ago why things were like this here, and the answer had been that people disappeared in vast quantities here, but only at night, and only if one was of particularly unimportant status. The Emperor himself knew of the disappearances, but since the only people that had ever disappeared were vagrants or peasants, bare minimum effort had been put into investigation, and when nothing had come of it other than conjectures of trafficking, he had simply banned everyone from walking around at night. Not even the rich and powerful were exempt from the curfew, as he had concerns that with no commoners skulking about at night, the kidnappers — because who else would specifically target those few would miss? — would get unscrupulous.

In any case, jianghu folk were exempt from the curfew due to a multitude of reasons, like having superior self-defense capabilities, not exactly being the supposed kidnappers’ type, wielding swords that civilians were outlawed from having due to it being impossible to outlaw a force of nature, and rarely needing to obey civilian law, anyways. What laws jianghu did have about non-interference with the mundane world and the law of benevolence whatnot were too complex and numerous to list; the main thing was that, during their journey, none of the sparse night watchmen with their lanterns said anything to them once they saw that they were armed.

The other main thing was that their surroundings were very, very black.

Typically, there would always be people up at night that had their lanterns going inside, or the roads would be lit up with some, but not in Zhongling. Apart from the night vigil lanterns, and very rare, very brave individuals with lights in their windows, everything was dark as ink. As for the moon and stars, they had been blocked with clouds.

Cultivators and most martial artists had advanced hearing. Occasionally, Zhu Li could hear talking coming from homes that he passed, but for the most part, everyone appeared to have gone to bed as soon as night fell.

How odd.

He had been thinking those words a lot, lately. It was easy to do when all he had were guesses and observations, no concrete answers.

This all reminded him of the Chu Estate, from its eerie silence to Chu Ran’s warning to never try to go in it at night. The cover of darkness had always had appeal to ne’er-do-wells.

“The night vigil will not disturb us if no laws are broken. Physically, they can’t put up much of a challenge, but they can certainly make a ruckus that will reflect badly on us,” Chu Ran explained quietly as they rode up closer to their destination. “Breaking into someone’s home counts as breaking the law, obviously, so we must be quiet.”

Zhu Li hummed in affirmation. “I can go in alone.”

“How would that do? I am responsible for your safety.”

“Is there anything dangerous inside? I can handle a few snakes.”

Chu Ran looked hesitant. “The Deng’s Young Lord was absent earlier today, on an errand or some such, and is likely back. His father is a civilian, but he himself is a cultivator. I am unsure of how strong he is.

“Also, as night is here, that lantern of yours cannot go into the home, lest it alert someone. If you don’t mind my saying so, Doctor, I have heard that nighttime is the equivalent of blindness, and I assume that you don’t have the same qi sense that I do.”

“I don’t, but the problem there is that I need to identify the snakes by sight. Even if you can sense where exactly the snakes are, if I can’t see their patterns, there’s no point.”

They went quiet for a bit, thinking.

“If it were brighter out, I might have been able to use moonlight. As it is…” Zhu Li trailed off, looking at his own lantern. “I can either make do with a really dim light, or we can catch all the snakes we can, bind their mouths, and bring them back.”

“While we do have bandages on us, if we bring snakes into the Pavilion, Junyan will never speak to any of us again.” Chu Ran sighed, chuckling with amusement. “We’ll simply have to go in and risk it. At the very least, there will be two of us. I can hold him down while you hit him in the throat?”

Zhu Li blinked a bit, then rolled his eyes, shaking his head as he dimmed the light on his lantern some, then took out a cloth to cover it for the time being. “I’ll probably just leave all the fighting to you.”

“As you wish. Yunzi, find a place to hide with the horses. Only come out if you hear the whistle.”

The two dismounted, handed their reins over to Xin Yunzi, then easily leapt onto the roof of the complex’s outside gate.

The inside was dead silent and dark, no lights from any candles to be seen. In all honesty, the only reason Zhu Li knew that this was the Deng Estate at all was that the other two apparently had impeccable senses of direction and memory; a necessity when one couldn’t go by visual cues, perhaps.

Speaking of sense… his earlier thoughts about the Estate possibly having arrays came back to haunt him, and he brought up as much to Chu Ran. The man just hummed placidly, though. “Arrays are difficult to set up, harder to maintain, and harder still to hide. You and I would have noticed something more definite if there were any significant arrays, and especially so if they were meant to affect us. The Dengs are rich, and the Young Lord alone is a cultivator, but I doubt they have that much security. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Well, he’d take his word for it.

They jumped down into the first courtyard, entering from what Chu Ran had said was the southern wall. The Deng Estate mercifully didn’t sprawl as much as the Chu Estate did, so finding the courtyard with the snakes in it should not pose much of a challenge.

Aside from the fact that Zhu Li couldn’t see too well, and Chu Ran had never been to that courtyard, of course.

Realizing this, Zhu Li felt a bit like an idiot. “Maybe we should come back in the morning.”

“That would cause more issues. Our previous arrival has undoubtedly alerted the Young Lord. He likely hasn’t yet been able to do anything yet, like kill the snake and dispose of its corpse, if he got back late, as someone would notice. If we wait until morning, he might have destroyed the evidence by then. We may already be too late, honestly, but we at least need to check.”

There was no real arguing with that. “I’ll try to remember the path, then, if you could help me with not running into things.”

Chu Ran laughed beside him.

Making no noise and managing to alert no one, Zhu Li eventually recognized the outline of the designated snake area, the wall of which they quickly bounded over.

As soon as they landed, Chu Ran let out a noise of surprise. “It’s so warm… perhaps you were right about there being an array. Or… no, nevermind. I sense a lot of heating talismans in the bushes, and buried in the dirt.”

Talismans were a lot less powerful than arrays, but a lot less difficult in every way. Generally, they were written on paper using cinnabar and such, but they could be carved out of stone and metal to last longer, then inlaid with other hallowed materials. Perpetual talismans were pretty much solely used for minor convenience purposes, like heat, cooling, light, spirit warding, and yao repulsion. Meanwhile, talismans that could be used for battle or harm were typically one-use, and needed to be manually activated.

In other words, a bunch of heating talismans was nothing threatening.

“Your qi sense lets you find out a lot,” Zhu Li commented, voice hushed. “How does it work?”

“Oh? Hm. I’m not too sure how to explain it,” Chu Ran idly answered, then paused, seeming to be keeping an ear out. “Here’s a snake,” he continued, turning to and pointing at a bush.

Zhu Li quickly lowered his faintly-lit lantern to hide it from outside eyes beneath the courtyard walls’ height, then took his sheathed Dusha off of his waist. Carefully, he illuminated the bush as best he could, then swept along its base with Dusha to irritate the snake enough.

A serpentine figure was seen to anxiously slither away from the scary sword, curl up into a heap out in the open, and stick its head into its own formed ‘ball’. Unfortunately, this was not their snake, as even in the dim light, he could tell that it was a solid, dark color.

“Not it,” he verbally confirmed, and they moved on.

This went on several times more, with Chu Ran pointing out snakes, Zhu Li getting them close, and their hopes getting dashed.

“My qi sense is like an extra pair of very wide, very long arms,” Chu Ran explained during. “Though, it’s a bit more than that, in that it can sense the way qi and wind flows. For example, I would never run into you, because wind blows around you, not through you. As for qi, everything emanates it, but living beings emanate it more, and in a different way. I can see these snakes because they’re curvy lumps of qi, which contrasts to the faint qi of the earth, nearly nonexistent qi of the walls, duller qi of the plants… there’s another one. How many snakes does this man have? Have you still not found it?”

“He had about twenty. We’re only quarter through. This one’s not it, either.”

“How awful… snakes all feel the same qi-wise, too. Is there really no way to tell them apart other than color?”

“…In theory, you might be able to get decent at identifying them by feeling scale texture, body shape, head shape, length, and teeth, but I generally recommend not touching any snakes so that you can live a full life.”

“Ah, well, living long is indeed a goal. I suppose I must continue being quite useless. Another one is right next to your foot, by the way.”

Zhu Li jumped in fright, quickly looking at his feet.

A skinny-looking thing was slowly slithering past his left foot. He could tell by the light-colored body, thin neck, and funny-looking head that it was just the jade whip again.

“Mark that one off, too,” he confirmed, relieved, and they moved on.

A little bit later, Chu Ran seemed to get bored again. “A person of interest once visited the Deng Estate, you know?”

Zhu Li grunted in acknowledgement.

“Earlier, I said that Mister Deng was not lying about not having dealings with this person. Then, I thought that if it wasn’t him, then it was someone in the Estate, and if the Young Lord really is in possession of this venomous snake, it could very well be him.

“Honestly, if the goddess of death snake goes unfound, that will be suspicious in and of itself, and I would have ways of getting him to fess up… ah, back on topic, the one that visited was Yin Dun.” Chu Ran smiled with teeth in the dim light, which just heaped onto the creepiness of it. “The Dun is a rare character that means ‘honest’, but if you ask me, it should be the character from ‘stupidity’.”

There it was again.

As opposed to his first impression of the man, Chu Ran was fairly normal to talk to, until subjects he didn’t like cropped up. Those basically amounted to his family, and anyone related to his family, as it were.

Yin Dun… hm. Zhu Li knew of the Yin family and had treated some of its members, but it sprawled over Dongqiu, on the easternmost border of Jin. Why would one be here? And why would Chu Ran have his suspicions on them?

“If we find that snake, and it really is that ‘goddess of death’, then that means that its venom might have been sold by the Young Lord, and the customer for it might have been Yin Dun. However, I need more time to make those ‘might have’s turn into ‘definitely’s.”

Zhu Li nodded, remembered than the other man couldn’t see it, felt embarrassed, then mumbled out an affirmation.

“Why are you…? Oh. I can sense you nodding. I’m a bit luckier than most blind people, to be able to know the world around me like this. Just act as normal, I’ll inform you if something is beyond my understanding.”

“Like colors, ink on paper, and things that are too high up.”

“Yes, exactly. Why, Doctor Zhu, have you been taking notes?”

Thinking back to his journal in his room that was indeed full of notes on people, Zhu Li internally sweated a little. “No. Why were you suspicious of Yin Dan?”

Changing the topic always worked.

“He has connections that I’m not keen on. Quite a long story, it is. I should tell you this, however: Chu, Han, Zheng, Yin, Dong. All of these families play a part, to varying degrees.”

Zhu Li’s eyebrows raised.

The Chu’s and Hans were obviously no surprise. Zheng was Zheng Tonghao’s family, the Yins he sort-of knew, and the Dongs were also frequent customers of his.

Chu was in Zhongling, Han in Nan’an, Zheng in Xiyuan, Yin in Dongqiu, and Dong in Beishan. Them being in five different directions was no coincidence; each major city of Jin would have one jianghu family in it reign supreme, and these families were considered the Five Greats. (The Chu’s becoming one of them was more due to a lack of talent in Zhongling than anything else.)

All five of them being involved in his framing… seemed to be way too flattering to him, honestly. What would they have to gain? He wasn’t that important.

Was Chu Ran talking about something else completely? He had to be, right? He had said before that this was bigger than just him, but what exactly was going on?

He felt slightly frustrated at all the vague hints he had, and further still frustrated at the man that was contributing to a lot of those hints while explaining nothing. Even though it would be useless on a blind man, he glared at Chu Ran, semi-hoping that it would be palpable.

Chu Ran was seen to frown a bit. “…Why are you annoyed? Is it over the amount of people? Oh, is it about Zheng Hongtao? I heard about you two.”

“…” Way to get it completely wrong and bring up a sore subject. “No. I’m just tired of being out of the loop.”

“Ah. Did you want to be in the loop? I can arrange that for you. I had just assumed that you wouldn’t wish to be stressed out some more.”

What? Really? Just like that? “You’d let me in on your scheming?”

“Scheming? You make it sound so evil, Doctor. I don’t mind sharing with you, as I doubt you would tell anyone.”

Zhu Li couldn’t say that he liked being read like this, but, no. He was right. He wasn’t gossipy by nature, and had no close friends that he would confide to, let alone any family.

That was a little lonely, now that he thought about it, but he had never minded being by himself too much. Anyways.

“Why are you being so open with me? Even though you said it’s out of gratitude, being a host, having the Twelve-Petaled Lotus, and whatever else, this seems a little excessive,” he had to ask, somewhat suspicious. “I can help with your investigation, sure, but I’m assuming that past all this stuff about snakes, I won’t be of much help at all.”

“Such nonsense. When is having a doctor around ever not helpful? Also, it is your trial, and your life on the line. You had no part in any of this before, while other people forced you to have some. It’s only fair that you get to know what’s happening, though do be understanding if I’m unable to be forthright with everything immediately.

“On top of all that, my teacher was a very wise woman, and she taught us that there are a few types of people in this world that cannot be angered, no matter what. One such type was the doctor,” Chu Ran’s eyes glinted here, a sly smile on his lips, “because in order to be well-versed in how to heal, they also have to be well-versed in what kills and causes pain.”

Zhu Li paused during his examination of another dud snake, then furrowed his brow. “You’re scared of me?”

What a joke. He was scared of him, slightly.

“Just like how you don’t know me that well, I don’t know you all that well. Who knows? I could mention one wrong thing to you, and you could start slipping poisons in my food that would make me miserable.”

“I’m not much for being petty. If I don’t like you, I just won’t treat you,” Zhu Li answered. He had admittedly pondered putting laxatives or mixing orange peel powder into the medicines he made for particularly annoying patients at least a few times, but had always managed to resist the pull, if only barely.

“Oh, I’m not implying that you are. You just seem to be the type best left unprovoked. Here’s another snake.”

Following the other’s pointing finger, Zhu Li made his way over with the lantern. This snake was laying against the wall, snug up against the corner, and as he got the dim light close, he saw that its body was dark with thin, light-colored stripes, all dyed in orange shades from the dim flame.

His heart thudded a little. After searching nearly the whole oddly-warm yard, going from one end to the other and bypassing nearly twenty snakes while they chatted, they had finally found it. “This is the one.”

Chu Ran sighed in relief behind him. “That’s one good thing, at least. What do we do now? Do you need help?”

Zhu Li really wanted to make a retort about conjuring double-layered cowhide gloves out of thin air, because getting bitten was the last thing he wanted, but he held his tongue. “Go in the building here, then find a thin cloth and something that can hold liquid.”

Chu Ran wordlessly did what he was told. Zhu Li was left alone, vaguely able to hear the door of the building opening behind him.

In better lighting, this would be a simple task of grabbing the snake behind the head before it could turn and bite him. Unfortunately, this lighting was awful, and he could only see the piled-up body of the creature.

Cautiously, he broke off a branch from a nearby bush, then poked the scaly pile. It shifted a bit, poking out its shiny-eyed head from its coil to stare at him, and its little forked tongue flicked out in the darkness.

He set the lantern down onto the ground.

Were he an ordinary man, this would still be a little difficult, but as a semi-decent cultivator, his reflexes were enough to contend with this fat, lethal worm.

In one stroke, he lunged forward, used the branch to push the snake’s body away from its head, then grabbed it right under its chin, his fingers pressing into its neck. While it hissed in alarm, he quickly lifted it off the ground, dropped the branch, carefully used both hands to maneuver the head so that he was holding it properly instead of backhanding it, then used his left hand to support the rest of its body.

It struggled fruitlessly, winding and twisting around his arm while its compromised head gaped. Unfortunately for it, snakes used to using venom were far from the strongest or best constrictors.

“Very impressive, Doctor.”

Zhu Li jumped for the second time that night, turning towards the sound while resisting the urge to drop his hard-earned snake. Chu Ran’s silhouette was barely visible to him.

“Try not to sneak up on me when I’m holding a possibly deadly snake,” he scolded, very much not happy.

“Sorry. A force of habit, if you will.”

Zhu Li waved him off. Pretty much every martial artist that amounted to anything had quiet footsteps, but the overwhelming majority of them would have the decency to make them heavier when there was no need for sneaking. “Put what you found near the light.”

The other made a humming noise, stepped around him to reach the lantern to his right, then stood there for a second before setting the thing he brought down. “Is that close enough?”

What looked to be a bowl had one edge lit up by the light while the rest of it was cloaked in black, because Chu Ran had set it just outside the range of its glow.

If his hands weren’t currently of snake, Zhu Li would have just taken it at this point. “…Push it a few cun closer.”

Chu Ran did so. The farthest edge was still in the dark, but, whatever, it would do. “Take two ends of the fabric, then stretch and hold it over the bowl. Don’t get your hands anywhere near the snake.”

After the other obeyed, Zhu Li slowly brought the snake towards the bowl, set its bottom jaw on its lip to pry its mouth more open, then gently pressed forwards and down, getting it to sink its fangs into the thin cloth.

The snake’s head jolted a few times in the telltale sign of an envenoming. After about a minute of waiting for it to get fed up of biting, he took it away from the bowl, then gently tossed it away and to the left.

“Venomous snakes have a lot of venom. One attempted milking wouldn’t be enough to get all the venom out, so don’t provoke it again. It won’t actively come for us, otherwise,” he quickly explained. “You can dispose of the cloth now.”

Chu Ran threw the cloth away nonchalantly, as if it were trash. Meanwhile, Zhu Li took the bowl, bringing it closer to the lantern and tilting its inside towards the light.

The dry clay bowl reflected dully, but a viscous liquid inside it did not, easily reflecting the candle’s flame.

“It’s venomous,” he confirmed, slightly relieved.

Chu Ran chuckled. “How curious. One mortally venomous snake amongst a sea of much more harmless ones… is that not quite odd to you, Doctor?”

Oh, it was definitely odd. And highly suspicious. Someone with good enough knowledge to collect snakes and know which ones were safer would have definitely double-checked to make sure they didn’t accidentally bag a deadly one.

“Maybe it was on purpose, to hide a snake that’s easily misidentified amongst actual harmless ones,” Zhu Li proposed. “If the rest are harmless, then you might subconsciously make an association that it’s harmless too, without checking the facts. Just like what I did.”

“You are only human. Time aside, this is a great discovery,” Chu Ran said, chuckling darkly. “Deng Xia sells the venom, Yin Dan buys the venom, Dong Hairong is both his and Chu Yan’s friend… ha. It all lines up.”

Dong Hairong? Chu Yan? Hold on, what—

The sound of a sword being unsheathed beside him suddenly interrupted his thoughts.

Alarmed, he looked towards Chu Ran. In the darkness, he could vaguely make out that the other had come to stand at some point in time, his blade glinting slightly. He was turned towards the southern wall of the courtyard, to their left.

Without any need to be told, he stood as well, and backed up to be a bit behind Chu Ran. His left hand went to a pocket filled with silver needles at his waist, and his right went to Dusha’s hilt.

“How did you manage to see me? Hah… I guess it doesn’t matter.”

A new male voice was accompanied by someone vaulting the southern wall, then landing heavily in the courtyard. In the next instant, he lit a lantern up, illuminating the courtyard fully. Zhu Li nearly squinted from the brightness.

The newcomer was a man of unremarkable appearance, but doubtlessly flashy and decorated clothes, their dark blue readily apparent. Still, he had a cultivator’s sword at his waist, making him of presumably much more dangerous status than those small fry they had fought earlier in the day.

“I heard people talking in the snake courtyard, so I came to see what was so exciting. The man from the trial, and that blind guy that showed up just recently… hah. You two are in even more trouble. Don’t you know where you are? Don’t you know who I am?”

No. But this guy’s tone dripped so much arrogance, it was nauseating, so he obviously thought he was somebody big.

…Though, he was right in that they had maybe chatted too much. Oops.

“Young Lord Deng Xia, presumably?” Chu Ran confirmed, tone bland.

“Huh. How come the blind one recognizes me? You must have memorized my voice. I didn’t know that you were such a fan. Did you break in here to have a chat with me about the snakes? They are quite the conversation piece, aren’t they?”

“Why, yes, actually. You have quite the collection here. Did you know that one of them is highly venomous, too? I thought that was very interesting, personally. Since you call them conversation pieces, did you want to talk about them? I’m all ears.”

“Tch. You’re only ears,” Deng Xia answered, voice dripping with contempt. In the bright light, there was a smug look on his plain-looking face, which made Zhu Li comfort himself about the fact that he was well aware of where the muting acupoint was.

“Untrue. I’m also nose, tongue, and skin,” Chu Ran replied, unfazed. “Let us get straight to the point, shall we? You sold venom from the goddess of death snake to Yin Dan, didn’t you?”

Deng Xia sneered. “So what if I did? So what if I didn’t? You two are trespassing, so it doesn’t matter if I answer your questions or not — you’re not leaving here alive.”

The tail end of his speech oozed malevolence, and in the next moment, he unsheathed his own sword, then swung it. However, his aim was not at either of them, but downwards, at a spot towards his own feet.

Zhu Li watched in shock as the blade cleanly and unfeelingly stuck into the ground, happening to slice off the head of the recently-discovered goddess of death snake that he had just tossed in that direction, which had been in the midst of slithering peacefully away from the noise.

While the poor thing’s body writhed in death, Deng Xia crouched down and picked up its severed head, holding it in the same way Zhu Li had done, just with less ‘weight’ attached. The head could still be seen to move what little neck it had left in a futile struggle to get away, its jaw slightly open in a preparation to bite.

Deng Xia pried its jaw open a bit more, showing off its short fangs, and put it a bit more forward for them to see, his own grin glinting in the light as he set the lantern down in front of himself. “The goddess of death is going to live up to its name tonight.


The author says: this bitch really about to fight with a dead snake head
Learning that snakes can live for minutes, possibly hours after being decapitated was not a fun fact for me.

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2 thoughts on “SnCr 6

  1. Aw… poor snakey.

    All of the ‘don’t go out at night’ stuff is mysterious, and intriguing, as are the hints at the bigger conspiracy behind the framing of Zhu Li.

    Like

  2. Crime Time.
    A discussion of the circumstances and mild confessional is exactly the sort of conversation one should have whilst seeing if you can find a venomous snake in the dark. Absolutely.
    Young Master Deng out here demonstrating on a personal level why exactly no one wants to deal with the jianghu.

    Like

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