[If you’re not reading this on chichilations, then you’re reading a stolen copy. Reposts are not allowed anywhere or for any reason! Nor are unauthorized EPUBs!
Links for thee: Ko-fi Donation — Writer’s Twitter — Project Index — EPUB Library — Discord Server
I see all your likes and comments! Thanks in advance!
After the fact… thank you to ewitch, Nesquick, bean, Min, Triz, Lia, Esther, rayejohns, Rebel-in-White, Kristeen, chocolate shortbread cookies, and Kat for the donations since I started this! Kisses to you all!]
As Zhu Li observed the desperately-twitching snake head, one of the lessons from his mother popped up into his head.
He had been very young, then, but he could still remember that day clearly. He had been no more than five years old, seated in the lap of his eldest sister as she played with his hair. They and his other two sisters were in their old study room, their mother at the head.
Memories were typically not great at sticking the older they were, and this one was no exception. He no longer recalled the context of that day, nor how everyone had looked down to the last detail, nor the exact wording, but he remembered the happiness he had felt while steeping in the attention his sister had given him, and the gist of what his mother had said at the time.
The hands of he who twists the neck of his own loyal dog will find their way to your neck.
Believe true colors when they were shown, never believe oneself to be the exception to a rule, never trust those that throw their friends under the wheels of a carriage… the list of interpretations for the quote were endless, all having about the same theme.
In this case, his own interpretation of it was quite literal. A venomous snake couldn’t quite be labeled as a loyal dog, but it had been Deng Xia’s pet, hadn’t it? Yet he had killed it without a second thought — and for what? Would his murder attempts be hindered if the snake had the rest of its body, or something? Did he not want it to wriggle around why he used it as a weapon?
…Did he not know that beheaded snakes could still lunge, despite having done at least some research on how to keep them?
To be quite honest, he had been finding this whole set-up odd from the very start, but had simply been going along with Chu Ran’s plans on account of a lack of his own knowledge. The Miasma Caves being full of snake handlers and poison experts was practically unique to it, and had also earned all of its members the title of ‘dark cultivator’, which was an informal catch-all term for any cultivator that did something polite society found objectionable. It didn’t earn any such cultivators a ‘kill on sight’ order or anything drastic, it simply placed a label on them that made them untouchable to a certain demographic of jianghu.
Incidentally, Zhu Li was ‘officially’ considered a dark cultivator, but due to his medical expertise coming to be known, several well-to-do families had ‘found the kindness within themselves’ to ‘overlook’ his ‘status’ so that they could receive his treatments in good conscience.
In any case, how the ‘politer’ jianghu functioned stemmed from how society at large functioned. Society at large did not like snakes. Why would the son of a merchant dabble in keeping them, when there were much more socially acceptable hobbies to indulge in that wouldn’t possibly cost him or family face?
This guy’s father had seemed really nervous about Chu Ran earlier. Had that just been because Chu Ran was, well, Chu Ran, or did he know something?
Fishy. Very, very fishy.
All of his thoughts lasted no more than a few milliseconds. His conscious mind was focused on the snake head in Deng Xia’s left hand, and what had to be lethal venom in its tiny fangs.
“The light is hung to his right,” he whispered
Without saying anything, he backed further up into the background of the fight scene, allowing Deng Xia and Chu Ran the full room to fight. If the former was a real threat, then he would just be getting in the way.
That didn’t mean that he would be just standing and watching, of course.
He surveyed the area proper. The snake courtyard was not big at all, and did not really have proper room for a proper sword fight, but that just meant that the environment mattered all the more.
While he withdrew into the darkness, Deng Xia lunged first, swinging his sword down from overhead and going in with the snake head on the low, aiming for Chu Ran’s middle. Chu Ran didn’t fall for it, blocking the sword with his own and easily striking him on his left wrist, knocking the fangs away.
As the clang of metal meeting metal rang out, Zhu Li realized belatedly that this situation needed to end very quickly.
The rest of the Deng Estate was likely devoid of anyone that could fight, but if people were alerted to their presence, that would spell trouble for them. Zhu Li was acutely aware that despite Chu Ran and himself knowing of his innocence, and the fact that it had been quite obvious at the trial that he had been framed, he wasn’t yet out of the woods when it came to people’s suspicions. Were people to be drawn here and word of them breaking into the Deng Estate to spread around, that would not only make him look worse, but implicate Chu Ran unnecessarily, and possibly give the rest of his family leverage to use.
However, since Deng Xia had found them, it was likely already too late, unless…
He looked around quickly, mind racing. How could he end this quickly?
Chu Ran and Deng Xia were exchanging a flurry of blows that he couldn’t quite keep up with, but he noticed that Chu Ran kept trying to back up into the darkness, away from the lantern, yet Deng Xia was keeping him in the light.
Immediately following that idea, Zhu Li ran over and leapt onto the gate’s roof, ran along it to bypass the two fighters, jumped down in front of the lantern, and then, very delicately, cupped his hand over the flame and blew.
The light immediately went out, plunging the courtyard into darkness. Only the dim light from the wick of the lantern they had before was in use.
Darkness was not his friend, but more importantly, it also wasn’t Deng Xia’s friend.
Though he couldn’t see, he could hear the exchange of blows coming closer to him as Deng Xia lost ground and was getting backed up into a corner. All martial artists, cultivating ones especially, had better senses than most, but his were evidently inferior in the dark compared to someone whose entire life was technically spent in darkness.
Before the fighters could get too close to him for comfort, he unstrung the sheathed Dusha from his waist, and casually tossed the dignified weapon towards where he believed their feet were.
A thud sounded out, followed by a cacophony of more, and then an even louder one came from beside him, accompanied by the profuse cursing of what was definitely not Chu Ran’s voice.
There came a slicing sound, then a shout that was soon aborted by another muffled sound, replaced with hacks, coughs, plus further noises of clothes shuffling.
“I have the snake head here, Doctor. I’m holding its mouth shut,” Chu Ran answered, casually ignoring the coughing Deng Xia whilst he stood over him. “What do I do with it?”
“Pass it over, quickly, but don’t release your hand until I say so,” Zhu Li instructed, stepping towards the sound of Chu Ran’s voice and extending his open right palm towards him. The other reached out with his empty hand to grab his underneath, then placed the head jaw-down on his palm. Zhu Li carefully used both hands to finagle with the head until he had the jaws pried open in prime biting position.
Since only a scant few minutes had passed during this whole exchange, it was still squirming. He resolutely took it upon himself to put the poor thing out of its misery, taking two silver needles out of his pouch, placing them together, then jabbing them at a severe angle into the snake’s skull, swiftly jamming through its brain to finish it off painlessly — a skill he had been repeatedly forced to learn from his mother whenever one of their milking snakes had reached the end of its natural lifespan.
It quit twitching immediately.
Now was time for the second part. He deftly flipped the two used needles around, then retraced his steps to light the lantern back up.
Smack dab within illumination range, Deng Xia was laid on his back on the ground, with his now-empty left hand clutching his chest — his right arm still held the sword, but it was pinned to the ground by Chu Ran’s own glinting sword, straight through the forearm.
Stomped on the chest, stabbed through the arm… Chu Ran didn’t joke around. At least his next act would fit in with that.
Brandishing the snake head, he jabbed downwards, right into Deng Xia’s neck.
The other gasped, sat up as much as he could in shock, then made to shout, only for Zhu Li to quickly reach around and cover his mouth with his free hand. After a few prolonged seconds of struggle, he lifted the snake head away, then flung his right hand out, throwing all of it into the far-off darkness, thoroughly out of reach.
“You and I are well aware of how lethal that snakebite is, even if the effects aren’t immediate,” he said quietly into the other’s ear. “If you want to keep on living, you’ll come along with us quietly, and start focusing on stagnating your qi in the bitten area. I’m guessing you don’t have anything to counteract it here. Think quickly, or we’re leaving you to die.”
He could hear footsteps and voices coming from outside the courtyard, the glow of lights peeking over the walls. Now was the time to go.
Silence stretched out quietly for a short moment. Deng Xia made no nod of acknowledgement, but he also didn’t struggle, so Zhu Li removed his hand tentatively, prepared to clamp right back down if the guy tried to holler or some such.
“You have a way to fight venom?” the man asked, voice as quiet as he could make it. At least he had some self-preservation instincts.
“I come from a sect of snake minders. Of course I do,” Zhu Li answered, completely lying. It wasn’t like Deng Xia would know that, though.
“Fine. Bastard,” the latter spat out in a whisper, hanging his head in defeat.
Zhu Li huffed. This guy was just mad that his little trick had been turned against him. He deftly closed the snake’s mouth, procured the roll of emergency dressings he always had on him, and tore a strip off with his teeth to tie the creature’s mouth extra shut. “Yingliu, we’ll have to bring him away now,” he reminded, slipping the snake head into the empty space in his money pouch.
Chu Ran wordlessly walked up and drew his sword out of Deng Xia’s arm with a sickeningly wet sound. Deng Xia muffled a yelp of pain into a grunt, then was promptly knocked out with hard strike to the top of the head via that same sword’s hilt, collapsing back down onto the ground.
Blinking a little in surprise while still-crouched beside the man, Zhu Li decided that now was not quite the time for questions. He quickly wrapped up Deng Xia’s bleeding arm in haste with the rest of the bandages (not because he cared if he bled out, but because blood trails were inconvenient, and best not on him), then navigated around until the man was in a good enough position to be thrown over his shoulder like a sack of rice.
“Oh, Doctor, I was going to do that…?” Chu Ran’s half-asking, half-stating voice rang out as Zhu Li stood.
“I’ve carried heavier people before, and you have to lead the way. I still can’t see much,” Zhu Li said back.
“Very well. I’ll get your Dusha.”
Getting out of the Deng Estate was easier than getting in, even with the extra baggage and the people milling around that had been roused awake by the sound of swords clashing; all they had to do was jump on roofs in a straight line out, since they weren’t looking for anything this time. After they did so, Chu Ran ducked them into various alleyways, stopped at a particular one, then did something in the dark that made a quiet, low-pitched sound for a good minute — a whistle, of sorts?
Not long after the whistle trailed off, the sound of unhurried hoofbeats drew near to them. Zhu Li listened; there were three sets of hooves, which had to be Xin Yunzi and the rest of the horses.
Chu Ran’s hand on his arm gently tugged, and they met up with the horses. Once close enough, Chu Ran let go of them, and he felt the Deng Xia’s weight on his right shoulder alleviate some. “Yunzi will go a more winding route with him. We’ll split off and be out in the open,” he briefly explained.
Zhu Li had no objection, helping the other to take Deng Xia. His eyes had adjusted enough at this point, unhindered by further intrusive light, that he could vaguely see the others’ black silhouettes moving around. As much as he wanted to go get on Guhui, he couldn’t tell which of the other two horses was her, and he knew that horses were not to be spooked.
After they were done securing Deng Xia, Xin Yunzi skulked off with no further word, going back in the direction he had come from the dark, lightless alley.
Chu Ran suddenly grabbed his left hand, led him over to the second horse in the lineup, and placed his palm on its neck. “This one is your Guhui,” he said, then took his palm back up, turned it over, and placed something onto it, “and this is your Dusha. Come, let’s head home.”
They mounted the horses, then leisurely trot down the other end of the alleyway, eventually coming back out onto a main street. Now that he was without any light source, Zhu Li actually found it easier to see the general picture of what was around in the darkness; even on such a cloudy, lightless night, the outlines of all the buildings and structures around were visible enough to avoid.
He was faintly amazed. “How do you know your way? Did you memorize the city?”
“Yes and no. Not the alleys. Go left, then right, then left, then right, and you eventually come to a main road, no matter where you are, so there’s no point in memorizing them. The main roads are the ones that require memorization. The Deng Estate is between Haolian and Bianpu streets, and since we left the Estate at the West, then headed mostly left, we are presumably on Bianpu. Let’s look out for that one nun statue, shall we?”
With that, Chu Ran turned his horse’s head right, and Zhu Li followed. “All this aside, Doctor Zhu, I’m rather surprised. I thought that venom of that magnitude was untreatable.”
“It is,” Zhu Li answered, voice flat.
“…Ah?” Chu Ran’s confusion was evident. “The goddess of death snake is deadly, is it not? It’s in the name…?”
“…Doctor Zhu, I appreciate that you were thinking quick, but he would be much more useful permanently alive.”
“He was never bitten. I just made him think he was.”
Chu Ran made a noise of wonder. “You did? How? I didn’t notice.”
“I used two needles to simulate a real bite, and went deep enough to be noticeable. It was dark, so he couldn’t tell. He clearly didn’t know what the goddess of death snake’s bite was supposed to feel like, in any case; it actually has very short fangs and a painless bite.”
“Hm. And you plotted to kidnap him, all on your own?”
“…Was that not what you were going to do?”
“Yes, and you helped. But I didn’t exactly tell you that beforehand, did I?”
Zhu Li went quiet for a second. “I assumed that’d be the best course of action. Since he knew we were there already, he could alert certain people the two of us probably wouldn’t want alerted if he got away. His disappearance would also alert them, but they would have less information to go on. Killing him would cause even more alarm and yield no benefits, as that would eliminate a possible source of information. Abducting him was the best out of all options.”
“Astutely observed. Rather unexpected for a doctor by profession. And your trick with the needles? Did you just now think that up?”
“No. It’s one I’ve used before, sort of. When you travel alone, you get creative with self-defense, and people tend to freeze up as well as submit to threats when jabbed with possibly poisoned needles. Even if they’re not poisoned at all, or daubed with something annoying yet harmless, they don’t know that.”
“Haha… my teacher was a wise woman indeed.”
“Sure. There was actually something related to that that I noticed,” Zhu Li continued, ignoring his little callback quip. “Deng Xia has a good enough grasp on how to care for snakes, considering they aren’t dead yet, but it’s an odd way of keeping them. Compared to the old man from before, it’s borderline inappropriate, even, to mix that many snakes… it’s also a really odd, off-putting hobby for someone of wealth, that doesn’t have any practical gain. He further knew that a decapitated snake is still dangerous, and that he could hide a lethally venomous snake amongst harmless ones. The issue there is that such information definitely isn’t widely available.”
So, how did he know?
That unasked question lingered in the air.
“That book of snakes you have is certainly comprehensive. Is it unique?” Chu Ran offered.
Zhu Li thought on it. “Kind of. It’s my own copy, which I compiled from books in my sect, my travels, and some other random books. Most people simply throw snakes away and avoid them, rather than study them, making such things uncommon outside of my sect.”
“So such knowledge likely originated from there?”
“I…” Zhu Li started, but cut off as surprise from the question hit him. A cold feeling washed over him. “You think that someone from the Miasma Caves is involved? That they helped in this?”
“Not necessarily. Knowledge is transmissible; it doesn’t need to be a direct line. For example, someone might have stolen resources, or heard from one of the members, and passed the information on to the wrong person.”
But that wasn’t likely, was it?
His home sect wasn’t as isolated as it seemed, no, but it had a code of conduct that prohibited the proliferation of their specific fields of expertise, in order to prevent possible loss in their leverage against and profits from the rest of the world. This had been the basis for his disagreement with his mother, and his own departure from the sect, as it were.
“That can’t be,” he began to explain. “Every member of the Caves is sworn to secrecy, with dire effects for the sect’s safety and economy drilled into everyone’s heads. The only people allowed outside of the sect are those high enough in the hierarchy; elders, the Sect Head herself, the Sect Head’s spouse, and her descendants, though that practice was abolished recently. I can’t think of a reason they would give that information up. I… I might have given it at various points in my life, but the information would have been too spread out in sources to matter, and I never let anyone see my reference texts. My advice on handling snakes has always been to not do it at all, never any specifics.”
“Sound advice, that is,” Chu Ran cheerfully agreed, then became more serious. “Do you know your sect elders well?”
“I did, but I’m five years out of the loop. Why?”
“Do you think any of them would be motivated by money? Perhaps not to give up trade secrets, but to give up one measly book on snakes?”
Zhu Li hesitated, then hesitated, then hesitated some more.
In all honesty, he couldn’t point at any one person from the sect that would be money-hungry, but he also couldn’t rule any of them out. Even his own mother wouldn’t be exempt from the pull of a large amount of coin. The sect guarded its secrets mostly for self-preservation and self-capital purposes — if a large amount of money went into purchasing something minor, then it wasn’t without possibility.
He… did not like this trail of thought.
“It’s not impossible,” he had to admit, “but any one of them could have done it for that reason. Other than listing who all of my elders and immediate family are, I can’t be of much help.”
“That could be useful information. I don’t have my note-taking materials on me, unfortunately, so perhaps all of those people should be saved for later. Besides, I feel like we’ve all done enough sleuthing for one day.”
Now that he was bringing it up, the light fatigue that had been creeping up on Zhu Li all day poked its head out, weighing on his eyelids and making his limbs faintly ache. He was used to travel, exercised on the daily, and had his cultivation backing him up, but his month in captivity had left his vitality a little lacking as of late. The excitement of fighting, riding, thinking, and jumping all about the day long had indeed taken its toll. While saying that he was on the verge of collapse would be an exaggeration, he was definitely at the point where he would prefer the day to be over.
“Ah, here. The nun statue, on the left,” Chu Ran piped up again. “We’re halfway home, at least.”
Zhu Li looked to the left, but saw nothing more than a dimly-lit, amorphous blob of nothing. This road in particular had not been blessed with any lanterns, either having been put out by the last of the night owls, or having run out of fuel at this point. “I’ll have to take your word for it.”
Chu Ran laughed airily. The sound echoed off of the walls of unseen structures, accompanying the sound of quiet horseshoes against brick. “Yes, you will.”
…Or maybe he wouldn’t, if the man kept making ominous comments.
The trip back to the Pavilion of Quiet was humdrum, and the unpacking of the trip even more so, apart from Guhui quite animatedly breaking free of her equipment to go lay down in the grass of the yard and pass out beneath the light of a lantern. The Chu’s were one of very few brave enough to have their lights on this deep into the night, apparently.
As he slid the book of snakes back into its place on the bookshelf provided for him in his room, Zhu Li’s eyes landed upon his journal of people of interest.
His fingers slid across its bound, blank spine. Following a second of pondering, he pulled it out, then prepared ink and a brush.
As tired as he was, his mind was racing too much, and forcing his eyes open. The more the discussions from today sunk in, the more he felt the need to get his thoughts down before they slipped his mind.
First, he noted down the three other families Chu Ran had described: Zheng, Yin, Dong. He dedicated several pages to each, prepared to write about whoever was relevant. Writing in-depth descriptions was too much to ask this late at night, so he stuck with outlining names.
Of the Zhengs, Zheng Hongtao, her father Zheng Enyuan, her mother Ji Yaoyi, and older brother Zheng Aota. Despite Zheng Hongtao’s interest, he had never interacted much with the rest of her family, mostly due to his own hangups — but that was neither here nor there.
Of the Yins, this ‘Yin Dan’ alone. His introversion and lack of care of jianghu matters was biting him in the ass right about now; he had been to Dongqiu, but just as he had never treated any Chu member before, the family must have little interest in interacting with a dark cultivator.
Of the Dongs, there was the Sect Head, Dong Yongming, who he had met with before. There was no bad blood there. Dong Hairong was one of his several children, who Chu Ran had randomly thrown out as having a connection to Chu Yan and Yin Dan. He hadn’t ever had bad blood with him, either, but being friends with Chu Yan was suspicious by itself.
The last family to note down was… his own.
Blankly, he listed all of his family members’ names, as well as the names of his elders, then looked out the window at the pitch-black courtyard.
He had been under the impression that he was a random victim in all this, singled out and targeted on the whims of some questionable people due to his unsavory origins and convenient lonerism, albeit over an extended period of time, seeing as his one robe had been pilfered two seasons ago. Now, however, with word of both Zhu Heng’s appearance and the possibility of a higher-up in the Miasma Caves having leaked information — something he himself had been shunned for proposing before — rattling about in his skull, he was no longer sure about that.
Zhu Heng wandering outside of the sect was odd, because despite the Caves not being as isolated as others believed, his mother had forbidden all of her children from leaving the sect, placing them in the same category as all non-elders. He himself had been expelled for wanting to leave, a fact known to him because it had been shouted at him the day prior to his actual departure. What had changed in these five years? What was so important that the sect’s rules had to be broken?
With how vehement his mother’s previous refusal had been, he couldn’t fathom any proper reason.
Sighing, he shut his journal once the ink was dried, and went to return it to the shelf. Ruminating on his family had dampened his mood and made him the proper amount of tired.
The second he put the book in its proper place and turned to head for the bed, he stopped in his tracks, looking back towards the open window.
There was nothing there visually, but aurally, a sound was vibrating its way through the paper, cutting through the empty air — it wasn’t something he had ever heard before. The best equivalent he could think of was… the grate of metal on stone, but deeper and slower.
Yet, as quickly as it had come, the sound left, bequeathing a sonorous vacuum in its wake. No matter how long he stood there, waiting, it did not reappear.
He watched the darkness warily, mentally noting that he had never stayed up so late before, on account of his tendency to rise early for gardening and travel.
Was this noise commonplace? If he stayed up late again, would he hear it?
Zhongling’s curfew, the reported tendency for the vulnerable or unmissed to disappear, and its completely dead evening streets — it all flashed past his mind.
Do not go into the Chu Estate, especially at night, Chu Ran’s phantom voice reverberated in his ears.
Now, this weird, unidentifiable noise.
He already knew something wasn’t right, yet the feeling was now worse, gnawing at the back of his mind and scratching against his back.
The author says: tfw you just want to sleep but the neighborhood unknowable horrors won’t shut up