Chapter One: On Rogue Cultivators and Old Blood
*scroll to the bottom for an explanation of some terms before reading!
The act of splitting a man in half isn’t nearly as hard as it’s made out to be.
“Hey!” Xiu Lihua yells, eyebrow twitching in irritation. The rickety boat she stands on bobs up and down from its place in the center of the lake, as if flinching at the tone of her voice.
The man from the village on the shore, now toppled backwards onto the ground, sends her a bewildered look across the lake.
He swallows. Then, he cups his hands yelling back, “Xiu Lihua! What was—”
“Are you alright?” Xiu Lihua interrupts. She squints at his form. No limbs gone. Good enough. “I told you to stay back at the village! I can handle these on my own—”
“Your--your sword,” the man responds, still clearly dazed. He raises a shaking finger. “The force of it—”
Xiu Lihua glances at her blade, Mengdie, raised in her hand. She lowers it for the man’s peace of mind. She sighs, tapping her foot.
“What knocked you over was the recoil from the force of this,” Xiu Lihua crouches down slightly to reach onto the floor of the boat. Then, she stands, gripping a water ghoul’s decapitated head up for him to see, “coming into contact with Mengdie. If you had been any closer, the residual impact could have halved you.”
“But you,” he stammers, eyes still wide. “Alone?”
Xiu Lihua nods, pleased that he’s catching up. She snaps her fingers, pointing to the dark spots looming under the water’s surface. “So long as you stay on land, their only priority is me. And you only unnecessarily danger yourself by staying here.” Xiu Lihua elaborates. Then, she closes her eyes. Sighing dramatically, she pats her stomach and adds, “I mean, I suppose you could toss me a fruit every now and then.”
The man looks solemn--much more serious than Xiu Lihua herself. He nods, shooting up to his feet. “Xiu Lihua, I understand, but, really! Be careful—three cultivators themselves failed in exterminating the beasts, so if you do need assistance, this one would be quick to—”
“Three?” Xiu Lihua interrupts, not unkindly. She tilts her head, raising an eyebrow. “You told me just one had failed.”
He freezes, fidgeting. “I—”
Xiu Lihua shrugs, then turns around, waving her hand to shoo him. “It doesn’t matter. The true number isn’t—”
“It was,” the man starts, finger raised sheepishly. He looks as if he wants to sink into the shore’s dirt, “ten cultivators.”
Xiu Lihua opens her mouth to retort, but she stops, eyes catching on the surface of the water. The dark spots have disappeared, their presence only shown by how a handful of bubbles rise ominously in their absence.
It could only indicate one thing.
“You are a very lucky man,” Xiu Lihua muses, hand drifting to her sword. The lake is eerily silent. Foreboding.
“Do you want to know why you are so lucky?” She asks, voice cutting across the silence. She does not turn around to see if he responds. From behind her, she hears the water gurgle.
The curl of Xiu Lihua’s lip twitches upwards at the sound. “Because, if there is one thing you must know--”
Suddenly, she feels droplets spray across the back of her robes. Xiu Lihua whips around, facing the direction of the crashing sound of the lake’s surface being broken.
Sure enough, a mass of water ghouls have leapt into the air. The stench of rotted skin fills the air. There are far too many to count. Xiu Lihua’s smile stretches wider.
“It is that I am worth much more,” she continues, raising Mengdie, “than just ten cultivators.”
The water ghouls lunge. Xiu Lihua pushes off the boat, meeting them halfway.
❀ ❀ ❀
Xiu Lihua leans against a wall, watching the villagers cheer. They dance in a circle, twirling each other around. A water ghoul’s head is set on a stick in the center of the village square.
The man from earlier approaches her, offering a smile. She returns it, pushing off the wall to greet him.
“You have a son,” she observes cheerily in lieu of greeting.
The man glances over his shoulder to follow Xiu Lihua’s gaze at a young boy, running back and forth across the square. He laughs, turning back to her. “He’s a little one, but he’s smart. And very happy that he can go back to playing in the lake.”
“It would’ve been unfortunate if he had half a father,” Xiu Lihua jokes, tapping the man good-naturedly with her sword’s hilt. “I’m easily one of the most capable cultivators in the region. You should listen to the words of someone like me.”
“Shameless pride!” He shakes his head, smiling. “A real cultivator, aren’t you, Xiu Lihua?”
“Most real cultivators are all talk.”
He hums in acknowledgement. Then, as if remembering himself, he fishes out a tan pouch from his robes, holding it out to her. “What we agreed on for your payment.”
Xiu Lihua nods her head gratefully, taking the pouch. The man takes it as his cue to leave, clapping her on the shoulder and walking off to join the dancing mass.
She opens the pouch, peering through. Gold coins twinkle back at her.
“Aish,” she clicks her tongue, eyebrow ticking. “This is how much we agreed on before I knew I had to spend an evening killing an entire hoard off, you cheap, stingy bast—”
“Are you talking about my father?”
Xiu Lihua jumps, hand flying to her sword’s hilt. She turns her head to look besides her.
The boy from earlier looks back at her, tilting his head innocently.
She clears her throat, eyes darting from side to side. “I—no?”
“Wow, cultivators really must be righteous people,” the boy muses. He blinks up at her, eyes wide. “They’re awful at lying.”
Xiu Lihua winces. She scratches the back of her head. A child. What do you do to distract a child?
“Are you enjoying the festival?” He asks, bored with her lack of a response.
“I am,” Xiu Lihua answers, reluctantly but sincerely. She enjoys social functions: getting to talk to new faces and most importantly, having a full stomach. What she does not enjoy is being severely underpaid. She almost curses again, but stops, remembering the boy is still staring at her. “I would dance, but I don’t know the ones your village performs.”
The boy shrugs, completely ignoring her attempt at small talk. “So, are you leaving soon? My father told me that you travel town to town, slaying beasts like you did today. Are you upset that my father did not pay you as much as past villages have?”
A nervous laugh bubbles up from her chest. “Ah-ha, no! That’s not—your father is a very nice m—”
“Where are you sleeping for the night? Do you even have a home? Are you a rogue cultivator, or are you from a sect? Your blue and white robes don’t look like they’re from any sect. Are you hungry? You’ve been staring at the meat bun cart this entire time. Are you leaving?”
Xiu Lihua hears all of his words, and quite frankly, they are…a lot of words. But she only really comprehends one thing. “How much do the meat buns cost?”
“Jie-jie, I’ll make a deal with you,” he responds, putting his fingers to his chin like he’s calculating his words. “There’s an auntie in the village that knows a lot of things. Scary things. Cultivators come sometimes to ask her about them. If you stay and take another job from her, I’ll buy you a meat bun!”
Xiu Lihua opens her mouth to gently let him down and tell him that she really will be leaving in the morning. Business can be found elsewhere, but—someone that cultivators often look to for information? It seems promising.
And, also…a free meal really couldn’t hurt.
But still, the child seems awfully adamant on making her stay. Should she be wary?Shaking her head, Xiu Lihua blinks at the boy. He smiles up at her innocently.
It’s just a boy, Xiu Lihua thinks. Young boys don’t swindle hungry cultivators. Also, again, meat bun.
“Are you able to meet me outside of the nearest inn?” Xiu Lihua asks. He nods vigorously. Xiu Lihua sighs. “Then, sunrise, tomorrow. And bring the bun.”
She hopes she will not regret this.
❀ ❀ ❀
That night, in her inn room, Xiu Lihua sits alone on the floor. She leaves the window open—the moonlight, the smells, and the sound of the village people: they make her feel less alone.
She gently wipes down the length of Mengdie with a wet rag, peering at her barely-there reflection on the blade. There’s a reason Mengdie is both feared and revered by those who at least recognize her name. Cultivators hold pride in their swords, but Mengdie was special: abnormally strong and endlessly enduring.
Xiu Lihua supposes that’s why she’s under so much scrutiny by the rest of the cultivation world. They likely suspect foul methods, a dark art technique to enchant her blade—actually, Xiu Lihua doesn’t know what they suspect. She’s been far disconnected from the rest of that world for a long time, now.
Still. She supposes they may be right.
Xiu Lihua turns Mengdie over in her hand, gently humming as she pours over the slight nicks in the blade. A warmth tickles the insides of her palms. She closes her eyes, sighing as a gentle trickle of spiritual energy seeps over into Mengdie.
As she runs a finger over a particularly deeper nick, she presses into it. In unison with the press, she winces, feeling the briefest flash of pain as if the cut in the sword were a wound of her own.
So, it doesn’t matter what the cultivation world thinks. Xiu Lihua is intertwined with Mengdie. Mengdie is intertwined with Xiu Lihua. And the cultivation world wished both were gone. From there, the distinction between Xiu Lihua and her sword blurs.
And she supposes she has to live with that. She has thus far.
❀ ❀ ❀
As it so turns out, she regrets it. Very, very much.
Xiu Lihua will not discover this until later, though, so for now, she skips happily along the road, cheeks stuffed with a meat bun.
The boy (“Jie-jie can call me Chang Ming,” he had declared while handing her the bun. She had nodded enthusiastically, compliant for her morning meal.) matches her energy, skipping alongside her.
“Jie-jie’s weimao is pretty,” he chirps, twirling a toy sword in his hand. “Jie-jie’s robes are also nice.”
“You think so?” Xiu Lihua hums, hand brushing the white veil of her hat. She looks down at her robes: her torso a lapis blue, the waist down in white, and a flowing robe of deeper blue that cover down the length of her arms and reaches down the sides of her legs. “I stole them, so thanks for the reassurance.”
Chang Ming whips his head around to look at her, eyes wide. “You—”
Xiu Lihua laughs at his horrified expression, cuffing him over the back of his head with her sword hilt. “Just joking, kid. Have some faith in jie-jie.”
He huffs, looking back ahead of them. “Jie-jie’s an odd person.”
At the end of the road, Xiu Lihua sees an old woman, seated behind a wooden table and holding an umbrella, just as Chang Ming had said they were headed to. She looks at Chang Ming, pointing to the woman in question. He nods, so she steps forward to the end of the table. Xiu Lihua shoos Chang Ming with her hand, and he pouts before running off to look at a nearby toy vendor.
“Good morning,” Xiu Lihua greets, smile bright. She bows her head respectfully. “I was told that you have information to give to cultivators about strange occurrences in the area.”
The old woman narrows her eyes at her. After a few moments of silence, she says, “Yes. Wait just a moment.”
“Ah, is someone else coming?” Xiu Lihua asks, head tilting. She snaps her fingers cheerily when the woman nods. “Interesting! You know, I do work alone: one Xiu Lihua is enough to get any job done, but if this many cultivators are interested, I am quite curious of the—”
“She has arrived,” the old woman interrupts, monotone. She points over Lihua’s shoulder. “I will begin now.”
Xiu Lihua shrugs, leaning her hip on the table and crossing her arms. She turns to look in the direction of the newcomer. “Well, a function attended late is much better than—”
Xiu Lihua stops, jaw forcefully snapping shut at the sight of the cultivator.
The woman is dressed in white robes, a layer of red underneath. Every crinkle of what Xiu Lihua thinks looks like mourning robes, is perfectly in place.
A face all too familiar, she thinks bitterly, cursing her luck. Her insides suddenly feel cold.
Xiu Lihua had all the country to travel, and yet this particular village forces her together with the other woman.
Ren Liufang looks equally surprised, if the way she freezes is any indication. Her eyes widen to the size of saucers.
At some point, Chang Ming has returned to her side. He looks at Ren Liufang in blatant admiration, staring at her in awe from where he hides behind Xiu Lihua’s sleeve. Xiu Lihua vehemently opposes the sentiment, but she can’t blame him. Over the years, Xiu Lihua has become so far removed from the rest of the cultivation world and its politics that she couldn’t name nearly five new sects or its leaders.
But she knows, at the very least, that Ren Liufang is a formidable cultivator. Admired.
Xiu Lihua almost laughs. Such different paths did they end up taking away from each other.
Xiu Lihua shakes her head, vaguely registering that the woman has been talking. She scoffs at the way Ren Liufang has taken a place standing furthest away from her.
“The string of mass murders is relatively recent,” the old woman continues. “Henan was the most recent city that suffered. Zhoucheng looks like it will be the next.”
“The next?” Xiu Lihua asks, ignoring Ren Liufang’s presence. “Is there a pattern to the cities where the mass murders occurred?”
The old woman nods, solemn, and bends down to rummage under the wooden table. She comes back up, laying out a worn map on the surface. She traces a finger along a road. “Previous cultivators could only point out that the tragedies occurred in cities that follow along this route. I’m unaware of any other patterns.”
Ren Liufang, who seems to have been diligently listening thus far, finally speaks up. “Are the people of Zhoucheng aware of this?”
The old woman shrugs slowly in response. Xiu Lihua hums thoughtfully. “Could it not just have been a ring of bandits?”
“The carnage couldn’t have been done by the hand of a human, or even a group of humans,” the woman responds reluctantly.
“A beast, then?” Ren Liufang asks, more terse than when she asked her previous question. Xiu Lihua snorts, tapping her blade against the table abruptly and ignoring the way Ren Liufang flinches at the action.
“This is everything I know. Beast or not, every cultivator that has come to me has neglected this thus far,” the woman says. Then, her gaze softens. “Please. I have the money to pay for your investigation, I--my son, he’s... he works in Zhoucheng. Please.”
Xiu Lihua’s heart pangs. She leans forward to rest a hand on the old woman’s shoulder. “I’ll do my best to look into it. Your son will be safe.”
The old woman looks at her hand warily, but relents eventually, shoulders slumping as she lets out a sigh. Then, she looks, gaze hard at the two of them. “You must work together. Please. Two cultivators together, it would--I’ll double the payment for both of you!”
Ren Liufeng stiffens again, looking pained. “I must decline the offer, though I--”
“Oh, Hell’s Gates, no,” Xiu Lihua cuts in sharply. “I work alone. Not with other sect’s disciples, and most definitely not with a shady woman I don’t even know.”
If Ren Liufeng recognizes the lie, or if she truly believes Xiu Lihua can’t recognize her, she makes no indication of either. Xiu Lihua lets out a huff of irritation.
“Please,” the old woman begs, head dipping down in a bow. “I have my savings stored in my home, I can up the pay--”
To Xiu Lihua’s delight, Ren Liufeng looks incredibly uncomfortable at this. “That will not be neces--”
“Listen, whatever,” Xiu Lihua waves her hand vaguely at Ren Liufang, who stops, not bothering to look at her, “you are--”
“Ren Liufang!” Chang Ming interrupts, eyes still annoyingly starry. “Her name is Ren Liufang.”
Xiu Lihua inhales forcefully, then lets out a huff. “Fine, Ren Liufang. I don’t know you. So frankly, I’ll be taking this case alone, and you can buzz off.”
“But jie-jie,” Chang Ming pleads in a stage whisper, tugging her sleeves. “It’s Ren Liufang! I so want to see Ren Liufang--”
“And the money,” the old woman adds. “The payment.”
“No,” Xiu Lihua retorts sharply, tugging her sleeve out of his grip. “I work alone.”
“I’ll up the payment,” the old woman insists, her gaze boring holes into Xiu Lihua’s head. She fidgets, and the old woman continues, “Add hot food. Braised pork.”
Xiu Lihua presses her mouth into a thin line. Money and free meals. The two ways to her heart.
“Please, jie-jie?” Chang Ming adds, noticing her hesitation. He throws his arms around her legs in a tight embrace. “I want Ren Liufang to stay.”
Xiu Lihua inhales, closing her eyes. It’s just one job, she thinks. One job, she can get it over with, get paid, get fed. Get this child happy. And then, Ren Liufang will be gone.
She sharply turns to Ren Liufang. “Fine. Fine!”
Ren Liufang, who seems to have been weighing her options, doesn’t bother to make eye contact. Xiu Lihua makes a harsh tsch sound with her tongue before continuing, “If you’re going to join in on the investigation, we can split up now and get as much information as we can. Meet me tonight by the southern entrance to Zhoucheng, where the forest that lies on both sides of the road ends.”
The old woman sighs in relief. Chang Ming jumps, overjoyed and shaking the table.
Ren Liufang pauses, and Xiu Lihua waits--for a retort. An acknowledgement. A refusal.
Then, the other girl simply nods slightly, before she whips around and flounces away.
Xiu Lihua scoffs. She turns around, not bothering to watch her go.
❀ ❀ ❀
At the end of the day, Xiu Lihua catches a ride on an ox cart. It makes her think of Ren Liufang, because childishly, she likes to curse out Ren Liufang as an ox in her head.
The man driving the ox cart was already heading on his way to Zhoucheng, so she waved him down and asked if she could join him. Truthfully, she could have easily used Mengdie to fly on her own to the city, but, still. Xiu Lihua appreciates the conversation.
“We’re nearly there,” the ox-driver tells her over his shoulder.
Xiu Lihua sits up, leaning her arms over the wood of the cart so she’s facing the man in his seat. “Oh, finally.”
He offers a wry smile, wiping his nose with the back of his sleeve. “Beginning to bore you?”
“No, never,” she responds cheekily, resting her chin in her hands. “For a farmer, you’re quite good at helping me go through my evidence.”
He laughs, a booming thing from his chest. “Well, for a rogue cultivator, you’ve interesting advice on the places that sell the best broths.”
“Cultivators eat, too,” she shoots back, giving a slight pout. He hums in acknowledgement at that, like a father appeasing a child, and Xiu Lihua huffs gently, slumping down. She sighs, closing her eyes as she goes over what little she’d found in the day.
As far as she found, Henan and the other cities struck by tragedy hadn’t had any important functions going on to justify a mass attack--at least, no functions known to the common people Xiu Lihua had talked with. And interestingly enough, the old woman that had told her about the murders couldn’t report on the actual states of the corpses left behind--all she knew was that the scenes were gruesome.
Hearsay on the street didn’t indicate it could be a bandit group. Or, at least: not as far as she can tell. Xiu Lihua winces at the memory.
(She had entered a tavern, notorious for passing around certain types of whispers, along with housing...activities that she just knew a Ren Sect disciple like Ren Liufang would never set foot near.
“Hello!” Xiu Lihua had boomed, throwing open the door. The tavern had a musty smell to it, dimly lit, save a few lanterns perched on some barstools. She could vaguely make out what seemed to be a betting table in the farthest corner.
Immediately, the rowdy chatter of the tavern fell into silence. Every man in the room turned to look at her.
Xiu Lihua cleared her throat. “Is there anyone here with information on Henan’s recent incident? I’m Xiu Lihua, and I’d like to tal--”
“Xiu Lihua?” A man in the corner asked, stepping away from the betting table. He looked a few moments away from crashing into the floor, a nervous twitch to his eyes. “Owner of Mengdie?”
“Mengdie?” Xiu Lihua frowned, puzzled at the question. She looked down at her sword at her hip, then reached down to unsheath it. “Yes, this is--”
The same man suddenly turned heel and sprinted out the tavern door.
Then, all of the men in the bar hastily scrambled after him, tripping over themselves and overturning tables to get ahead. The bar owner scowled at their retreating forms, then turned to send Xiu Lihua a glare from behind the counter.
Xiu Lihua sighed.)
“Here we are,” the ox-cart driver announces, and the cart lurches to a stop. Xiu Lihua sits up to look around. Surely enough, the end of the road that leads to Zhoucheng. If she looks further down, she can see the gates to the city’s entrance.
But for now, both sides of the road are surrounded by dense forest. Xiu Lihua places a hand on the cart’s side and hoists herself over, spinning around to face the man. She bows, returning his smile when she stands, and waves enthusiastically as he continues to set down the road.
As soon as the cart travels further, though, Xiu Lihua’s smiles slowly fades.
At first concealed by the cart, now stands Ren Liufang in front of her. She looks pristine as earlier in the morning, and Xiu Lihua manages not to roll her eyes. Once Ren Liufang’s gaze lands on her, she straightens.
“Well?” Xiu Lihua snaps in lieu of greeting. “Anything useful?”
Ren Liufang’s eyes stay on her for the briefest moment. Then, she swivels around to continue walking down the path.
Xiu Lihua stands, blinking. She scowls, turning to trudge after the other girl.
“I guess that’s a resounding no,” Xiu Lihua snips once she’s walking stride by stride with her. Ren Liufang doesn’t respond, so she adds, “Has your tongue been stolen by a swindler along the way here?”
Again, she’s met with silence. Xiu Lihua bristles, irritated. Could Ren Liufang not just work with her--was she too stubborn to answer a simple question?
Or, the small voice in the back of Xiu Lihua’s mind whispers: does Ren Liufang remember her?
“We’re not familiar with each other,” Xiu Lihua lies through her teeth, attempting to come off as nonchalant, “but there are people that need our help. Protection. We have to share with each other what we find, for their sake more than ours.”
Ren Liufang gives a stiff nod at that. Which is something, it should be something, but Xiu Lihua just gets more irritated.
“Alright, stop, stop, stop,” Xiu Lihua suddenly snaps, stopping in place. Ren Liufang stops walking. “I understand that the Ren Sect is...well, I’m not sure, now--but could you pretend to care about these matters? Is this beneath what your people deem worthy of your time?”
Ren Liufang’s grip on her sword tightens in response, and Xiu Lihua scoffs when she notices. “Oh, so is this what bothers you? An attack on your sect? Are the Ren ideals so shakeable--”
The sound of a tree groaning as its trunk collapses crashes through the rest of her words. Xiu Lihua stops, turning to look behind her.
Ren Liufang seems equally alert. She unsheathes her sword swiftly, and Xiu Lihua draws Mengdie.
There’s another low, groaning sound, and Xiu Lihua narrows her eyes.
“That last one,” Xiu Lihua observes, voice low, “was not a tree being felled.”
“No,” Ren Liufang responds. Her eyebrows have furrowed together into a frown, and her eyes sweep side to side, analyzing their surroundings. “It was not.”
Mengdie begins to glow an anxious blue, and Xiu Lihua holds the hilt tighter. Ren Liufang glances at the sword briefly, an unreadable expression on her face. She turns so she’s back to back with Xiu Lihua.
“Resentful spirits,” Ren Liufang notes. Xiu Lihua nods in agreement: she can practically taste the resentful energy with how thick it is in the air. “Many.”
As if on cue, the hoard of spirits drag their way out of the shadows of the trees on either side of the road. Xiu Lihua takes them in: decayed skin, tattered robes. Dried blood.
Corpses, Xiu Lihua thinks, eyebrows raising. Her grip on Mengdie tightens. What are they doing in Zhoucheng?
From behind her, she can feel Ren Liufang raise her sword. The other cultivator says, “Xiu Lihua.”
Xiu Lihua nods in acknowledgement, raising Mengdie. A lopsided smirk etches its way across her face.
“If you can hold your own, then you can hold your own,” Xiu Lihua responds. “Ren Liufang, be careful. But don’t get in my way.”
The first spirit lunges.
The two women push off of each other. Xiu Lihua swings Mengdie upwards swiftly, easily cutting through the rotted flesh of the spirit. She swings around to meet another, and its saliva sprays across her neck as it stumbles desperately towards her.
It’s strong--almost too strong for a normal resentful ghost, Xiu Lihua thinks as she drives her sword through its chest, then raises her leg to kick its body off onto the ground. Much more relentless than what I’ve seen.
She curses under her breath as more rush forward. Mengdie glows an even brighter blue, as if the blade is overexcited. Xiu Lihua huffs out a breath, then raises her sword. When the spirits’ approaching forms vaguely resemble a line, she swipes the blade horizontally. The force of the swing cuts through their bodies easily.
A sharp flash of pain cuts across the back of her sword hand, and Xiu Lihua yells, Mengdie clattering to the ground. She hisses through her teeth, inspecting the bleeding gash with narrowed eyes.
She spins to see a resentful spirit notching another arrow into its bow, and she lunges down to grip her sword. The spirits have pounced on Mengdie, though--tearing at the blade as if it were a person.
Xiu Lihua winces, feeling the phantom sensation of fingers digging their nails into her own skin. They’re attacking Mengdie, too--why? What are they sensing? The spirits don’t have the mental capabilities to realize--
Then, the resentful spirit aims its bow in her direction.
Xiu Lihua grips another spirit by its hair, tugging so the weight of its body falls in the direction of her pull. She spins, using its momentum to hold the corpse in front of her. The arrow instead lodges its way into the corpse’s forehead with a thunk.
Xiu Lihua sprints to the smaller gathering of the spirits around Mengdie, pushing herself off the ground and slamming her elbow downwards into one that turns to snarl at her. Another two lunge towards her, and she drops, sweeping her leg underneath them and hastily returning to her feet when they fall.
Finally reunited with Mengdie, she grips the sword into her hands again, spinning around to face the archer spirit, and--
A sharp pain splits across her side. She screams, stumbling to the side.
As soon as it had come, another upward stroke of a sword cuts across her abdomen to the bottom of her chest. Blood spills across her robes, and Xie Lihua gasps shawllowly, toppling backwards onto the ground.
There’s so many, Xiu Lihua thinks viciously, cursing aloud as she tightly clutches her torso. Why are there so--
A spirit stands above her, and Xiu Lihua struggles to push herself onto her elbows, scrambling to reach for Mengdie. The spirit raises its sword, growling as it prepares to strike down--
Xiu Lihua’s fingers finally grip Mengdie’s hilt, and she swings the sword around to cut through the spirit’s midriff. She kicks the corpse off of her form, digging her blade into the ground to push herself up.
Surveying the road, the resentful corpses all lie motionless across the ground. She sighs in relief, wincing as her torso’s wounds protest.
Standing over the archer spirit’s corpse is Ren Liufang. She seems to be observing it, looking across its weapon and its robes. Xiu Lihua almost scoffs.
She tries to take a step forward to fire off a snarky comment, but the words die in her throat when her knees lock.
Oh. No. She touches a palm to her torso, scowling at the thick blood that cakes it when she draws away. Xiu Lihua’s vision spins, and she presses a shaky palm to her forehead.
“These robes aren’t of Zhoucheng,” Ren Liufang observes, muttering to herself. “They’re made of materials more characteristic to Henan’s region--and the spirits’ strength? I wonder why they seemed to be more capable--”
“Ren Liufang,” Xiu Lihua manages, voice weak. Her insides feel hot.
“They came in a hoard as well,” Ren Liufang continues, seemingly lost in thought. “I wonder--”
“Ren Ju,” Xiu Lihua says thickly, voice barely a whisper. Ren Liufang freezes.
Xiu Lihua can barely tell what she’s saying--her mind feels like it’s stuffed with cotton, disconnected from her tongue--so she repeats, “Ren Ju, it’s--I’m--”
Ren Liufang stands hastily--or maybe she doesn’t, Xiu Lihua’s eyelids are drooping, and everything looks like a watercolor painting. She can barely keep herself upright with where she leans on her sword.
Xiu Lihua squeezes her eyes shut, and mutters softly, “It hurts, Ren Ju.”
The world spins one more time before she feels the ground rushing to meet her. She vaguely makes out Ren Liufang’s form rushing towards her.
And then the world goes black.
❀ ❀ ❀
The next chapter, Chapter Two: Of Sect Cultivators and Reopened Wounds:
-Xiu Lihua: Chinese naming conventions have the family name first, individual name second, so if we were in the modern Western/American world, you’d call her Lihua Xiu. They are also given two names: a courtesy and a given name. Xiu Lihua is her courtesy name. Only family and close friends address you by your given name (hers is Xiu Ying, Ren Liufang’s is Ren Ju.)
-Cultivators: Certain people (according to Chinese tropes) who can train/refine the powers of their body to the point where they are capable of magic-like powers and abilities.
-Sect: A group (organization) of cultivators. (comparable to a clan, maybe, but obviously not quite.) If you’re a cultivator without a sect, you’re a rogue cultivator.
-Mengdie: “dream butterfly” in English, the name of Xiu Lihua’s sword.
-Weimao: flat, circular hat with a long veil coming off the edges that parts in front of the face. it looks like this: https://ziseviolet.wordpress.com/tag/weimao/page/2/
-Resentful Spirits/Energy: to be super simple, evil energy from dead people/reanimated evil dead people.