“I thought you wanted to bring him here,” said Qing Lingfeng, setting down the sealed Jiutian sword on their table at the main hall of the Du Manor.
“Change of plans,” said Di Mie, shaking his head. “I don’t think he can last the conference.”
“Where did you stash him?” sighed Qing Lingfeng.
“Zhuiyue Cave. I sent Jianshi and Jianjin with him.”
“That’s good,” said Qing Lingfeng, looking at the representatives from the smaller clans streaming into the hall.
“Where are those two disciples of yours?”
“They’re treating the injured at Phoenix Manor.”
“Make sure to bill the Rong Clan for this,” reminded Di Mie quietly. Qing Lingfeng returned a subtle nod.
“Sect Leader Qing, Valley Lord Di,” greeted Rong Zhong. “I’m glad you both could make it.”
“Mister Rong,” they greeted in return.
Rong Zhong went around to continue greeting the others, his usual cheeriness nowhere to be seen. His brother, Rong Jing, had a table adjacent to Du Yichen’s table at the end of the hall.
After a round of introductions, Du Yichen thanked Rong Jing for organising the conference and introduced himself as the moderator for the meeting.
Many representatives of the elite families looked visibly displeased when Du Yichen introduced the Border Mountains Sect. Their table was also next to Du Yichen’s despite being a sect made of mostly civilians.
They first addressed the incident at Phoenix Manor, and when Rong Jing brought up the revenants summoned from a dead spirit gate, there was a loud collective gasp from the room.
“Mister Rong Jing,” said Du Yicheng, bringing up what Rong Jing left out. “There is also the matter of Rong Clan’s Jiutian sword possessing dead aura.”
“The Rong Clan will take care of it. As long as the Border Mountains Sect returns the sword and stays out of our clan’s business, we won’t pursue this matter any further,” snapped Rong Jing.
“Let me,” whispered Di Mie to Qing Lingfeng as he took the sealed sword. He showed everyone the sealed sword, then walked over to Rong Jing’s table and held out the sword for him.
“The Border Mountains Sect makes no claim on the Jiutian sword. We shall return it to you now that it is properly sealed,” said Di Mie, placing the sword and an invoice on Rong Jing’s table.
Rong Jing looked at the invoice and broke into laughter.
“A hundred silvers for the service of sealing it? Commoners are all about the money after all.”
“Although the sword is sealed,” said Di Mie. “I would caution mister Rong Jing to be careful with it.”
“It could be a scam,” spoke up one of Rong Jing’s men. “I saw a worker pick up the sword without being affected before the Border Mountains disciples took it away.”
“They’d ask for a hundred gold if they planned to scam me, not a measly hundred silver,” said Rong Jing, his hands hovering over the seals binding the sword, not daring to touch it.
“Let’s have the Spirit Emperor prove in front of everyone that the sword is real,” suggested his men.
“And let an outsider wield our clan’s sword?” said Rong Jing.
“Ah, this servant did not consider…”
“Rong Zhong,” said Rong Jing. “You have been quiet the whole time. Don’t you have an opinion?”
“Elder brother has a point that outsiders should not wield the Jiutian sword,” said Rong Zhong, his voice quiet and subdued.
“Then someone from our clan must do it,” said Rong Jing. He turned to his men who dared stir the pot. “One of you should unseal the sword and check.”
“Eldest young master, this servant dares not touch the Jiutian sword…” spoke up one of them.
“Useless fools,” said Rong Jing, looking at the few elite guards with him who kept their heads down, not daring to volunteer either.
“Perhaps we should consider destroying the sword,” said Rong Zhong. “There’s no need for—”
“Nonsense,” said Rong Jing, cutting him off. “I will not be seen as the Rong Clan’s son who destroyed the ancestral sword.”
Then an idea struck him—
“Rong Zhong. You’ve always said you have no ambition to become the leader of the clan, haven’t you?” said Rong Jing, looking at his younger half-brother. “Do you still stand by your words?”
“Yes, elder brother. I have no desire to be clan leader.”
“Swear it in front of everyone here.”
Rong Zhong sighed, then stood up and raised his hand.
“I swear it on my life and my name that I have no wish to be clan leader.”
Rong Jing laughed.
“Since you swore it in front of everywhere, I’ll allow you the honour of holding the Jiutian sword.”
“Elder brother?” said Rong Zhong, frowning.
“As interim head of the Rong clan, I order you to authenticate the sword,” said Rong Jing.
The hall gasped. Di Yichen slammed his armrest to quiet them and calmly addressed Rong Zhong.
“Mister Rong Zhong,” said Du Yichen. “If you wish to refuse this task, know that you may request to be disowned by the Rong clan.”
“Indeed!” added the clan head of a minor sect. “Second young master Rong should consider Lord Du’s suggestion and not take such a risk.”
“Just leave, mister Rong Zhong. Becoming a commoner is better than being cursed by dead aura.”
“You may have a playboy reputation, but if you are willing to give up your flirting ways, our Mingsi Temple is willing to take you in as well,” offered an abbot.
Rong Jing slammed his armrest and scowled. “Interim or not, I am the head of the clan. Rong Zhong belongs to the clan. He may request to leave the Rong Clan but I don’t have to approve it.”
“I appreciate everyone’s concern, but this is no small matter for our clan,” said Rong Zhong. “Please be careful while I begin authentification.”
Everyone in the hall stood up, wary of the sword.
Rong Zhong activated his spirit aura, coating himself in a thin aura barrier as he tore off the seals and unsheathed the Jiutian sword.
A dark aura congealed and dripped from the tip of the blade.
“Such strong dead aura!” gasped the others.
“Cleanse the sword,” Rong Jing ordered his men.
The guards and disciples took out their talismans and pointed their swords at Rong Zhong, who stood tall and held out the Jiutian sword.
“Servants of the Rong Clan. To raise your swords against the wielder of the Jiutian sword is treason.”
Stunned by Rong Zhong’s show of dominance, the men quickly withdraw their swords.
“By my authority as clan leader, I order the Rong Clan to seal Rong Jing’s core and banish him,” said Rong Zhong.
“Hmph! Looks like this liar doesn’t want to live anymore,” said Rong Jing. “Come here, Li Gang. Challenge him as my proxy. See how his arm trembles; he can’t hold the sword for long.”
The head of his elite guards, Li Gang, drew his sword and said, “I formally challenge the wielder of the Jiutian sword on behalf of my master, Rong Jing.”
Di Mie stepped out and drew Ashfire.
“Then I shall formally accept the challenge on behalf of this mister Rong Zhong.”
Li Gang stepped back, surprised.
“You can’t fight on his behalf!” interrupted Rong Jing, knowing that none of his men was a match for the Fallen Leaves Valley Lord of the Border Mountains Sect.
“Since the eldest young master Rong can use a proxy, why can’t the second young master Rong use one?” said Di Mie.
His face was covered by a dark veil but Rong Jing could feel a glare aimed at him. His lips curled into a snarl.
“Valley Lord Di, this doesn’t concern you or the Border Mountains Sect,” said Rong Jing. “This is a family matter of the Rong Clan.”
“Ah, but as a disciple of the Border Mountains Sect, I cannot stand idly by when I see such unfairness,” said Di Mie. “If someone else volunteers as a proxy for Mister Rong Zhong, then I shall withdraw.”
“Lord Du, will you allow the Border Mountains Sect to carry on this farce?” demanded Rong Jing, turning to Du Yichen.
Du Yichen held up a hand to quiet the hall.
“We shall act according to the rules of the Rong Clan. From what I know, only he who wields the Jiutian sword may accept the challenge,” said Du Yichen. “If Valley Lord Di is willing to do so, then he is as eligible as proxy.”
“Who would dare hold the cursed sword?” whispered the people in the hall.
“Hah! Pick up the sword if you have the gall,” taunted the senior disciple of the Rong Clan.
“Since you asked so nicely, I suppose I have to accept your challenge,” said Di Mie to that senior disciple, clapping a hand on Rong Zhong’s shoulder.
“Brother Di, it’s fine,” said Rong Zhong, looking at Di Mie.
“I’ll send you an invoice for five hundred silvers later,” said Di Mie, wrapping strips of black cloth over his hands and wrists before taking over the sword.
He pushed Rong Zhong over to Qing Lingfeng who began sealing the dead aura spreading from his palm.
“Certainly,” replied Rong Zhong, catching on quickly. “Can I get a discount on the treatment?”
“No discounts,” said Qing Lingfeng, playing along. “It’s another thirty silvers for temporary treatment.”
Rong Zhong gave a sheepish chuckle.
Some in the hall went ‘ohh’ when they realised that the Border Mountains Sect was simply doing business.
“You’d better explain this later, you silly brat,” whispered Di Mie next to Rong Zhong’s ear just before he strode up to Li Gang.
Li Gang bowed to Rong Jing and Lord Du.
“I shall proceed if this does not displease my master and Lord Du,” he said.
“Both of you, please take it outside,” said Du Yichen, and addressed the others. “Guests, please be mindful and keep yourselves safe.”
“Hah, let’s see how long you can hold onto the sword,” said Rong Jing, leading his men into the spacious courtyard outside the main hall.
His smirk faded when he saw Di Mie dangle the sword from the strip of black cloth, minimising the contact he had with the corrupted blade.
Li Gang steeled himself. He was a skilled fighter with decades of experience and could see that Valley Lord Di was not to be underestimated. Li Gang had been the head of a small sect before it was destroyed during the Calamity. He and his men who survived sold themselves into the service of Rong Yaozu to protect their families.
Upon Rong Yaozu’s death, the contract for their services fell into the hands of Rong Jing.
He knew the others in the elite guards had similar stories to his. Their job was to keep the keeper of their contracts safe, not deal with danger unnecessarily. But Rong Jing was not shrewd like his father and insisted for them to take the cursed Jiutian sword.
Li Gang knew full well the horrors of dead aura. His hand trembled but his face was stern.
“You’re skilled,” observed Di Mie. “I won’t be able to hold back against you.”
“It’s my honour to go against Valley Lord Di,” said Li Gang, activating a dense spirit aura that did not lose to Di Mie’s.
Back at Zhuiyue cave, Jianshi and Jianjin trained as Xie Li dropped them some pointers.
“Try that another hundred times,” said Xie Li, sitting on a rock in the back garden of the manor.
“Mercy, Senior Xie! Even if my body can take it, my brain can’t!” wailed Jianjin. “It’s impossible to throw a hundred bamboo leaves up into the air and then cut them all before they fall to the ground!”
“You can throw the leaves higher if you like,” shrugged Xie Li, busy cleaning Twig.
“That just spreads the leaves out and makes it harder!”
“Or you can hit lower.”
“Impossible!” cried Jianjin.
“Hmm,” said Xie Li, setting Twig aside and watching Jianjin’s movements. “From what I’ve observed, it shouldn’t be that hard for you. Even if you can’t get all one hundred leaves, ninety shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Even counting a hundred leaves before I toss them up is starting to hurt my head,” said Jianjin.
“You can try counting by grabbing them in bunches of ten,” said Xie Li.
“You make it sound so easy,” sobbed Jianjin.
“We’ve been trying for the whole morning,” said Jianshi. “This technique seems to be way above our level…”
“What’s the point of learning to cut every single leaf? If I had my spirit aura back, I could just do a Roaring Pulse and disintegrate them all.”
“Do you have the stamina to do a blast attack consecutively a hundred times?” asked Xie Li.
Jianjin shook his head.
“Can you do a wide slash in a narrow tunnel with dead aura covering the walls?” asked Xie Li again.
Jianjin shook his head again. Senior Xie’s examples were sometimes very oddly specific.
“Then it’ll be good to improve your precision.”
Jianshi realised something. “Is that why Di Shibo has two swords?”
“You’re right!” realised Jianjin. “He uses Ashfire for big, flashy attacks and Jade Flute for the less flashy stuff.”
“Jade Flute?” said Xie Li.
“Twig,” explained Jianshi. “Di Shibo called this sword Jade Flute. It’s not officially named, though.”
“I see,” said Xie Li. “Hmm, I haven’t carved a name into Twig yet either.”
“I’ll fetch you the tools if you wanna do it now!” offered Jianjin.
“Another time,” said Xie Li. “You should focus on practising first.”
“Ehhhh,” groaned Jianjin. “Don’t you have any tips for us, Senior Xie? We’ve made no progress at all.”
“You both shouldn’t find this too difficult if you’ve already practised the Bugkiller Technique*,” said Xie Li.
*he uses a pun on the word ‘insecticide’
“Bugkiller Technique?” asked Jianjin.
“That’s what Di Shibo calls our training sessions at the Hermit Moon Peak,” said Jianshi, whacking Jianjin’s shoulder. “Pay attention sometimes, will you?”
“Ah, that,” said Jianjin. “Di Shibo just chucks us there once in a while and tells us to survive the swarms until morning. It’s not technique, it’s just pure desperate whacking…”
“If you can consistently achieve results, it becomes a technique. Just experiment and do what you can,” said Xie Li.
“Do whatever I can? Oh…” realised Jianshi as he test-swung his sword.
“Hm? Did you figure something out, bro?” said Jianjin.
Jianshi went to the lush bamboo growth and pick at the leaves until he got to a hundred, then tossed them up into the air. He cut the ones he could, then with a wave of his sword, swept the leaves near the ground back up into the air. He repeated it a few times and cleared the leaves.
“Hm,” said Xie Li. “If you can curve your sweeps a little more, you can better control the trajectory of the leaves.”
“Wait, you can sweep the leaves back up into the air?” said Jianjin.
“Senior Xie did say we could hit it high or low,” said Jianshi.
“Ah,” realised Jianjin. “So as long as the leaves haven’t yet touched the ground, it’s fine?”
“Have you thought of how you’ll keep the leaves in the air?” said Jianshi.
“If bro can do it, I’m not gonna lose,” said Jianjin, gathering a hundred leaves needed for the exercise.
Jianjin threw the leaves up and got low, kicking the leaves up higher, trying to bunch them together but they dispersed, like blowing a dandelion in the wind.
“Ah! Wait!” said Jianjin, chasing after the dispersed leaves with his sword.
“Huh,” said Jianshi.
“Hm,” said Xie Li.
“That was just a trial run, I’ll get it the next time!” said Jianjin, pouting as he gathered the leaves to try again.
He failed another ten times, gave up and squatted down, sadly drawing circles.
“Senior Xie, how would you approach this?” asked Jianshi.
“Yes! Show us!” chirped Jianjin, hopping back onto his feet.
“I haven’t done it in a while,” said Xie Li. “I don’t think I can get them all either.”
“I’m sure it’s amazing,” said Jianjin. “Show us how you do it!”
“All right,” said Xie Li, stretching as he gave Twig a few test swings. “I might fail since I’ve got a few blocked acupoints.”
“Blocked acupoints…?” said Jianjin.
“That sounds painful,” winced Jianshi.
“It’s not that bad,” said Xie Li. “Physician Hong gave me some medicine for that.”
“That physician who came by this morning that looks like an otter?” said Jianjin. “His furry face and long whiskers were so cute.”
“Ah-Jin, it’s disrespectful to call Physician Hong ‘cute’. Even if he does look…cute,” admitted Jianshi.
“I’ll just call him cute in my heart, then,” said Jianjin.
“Physician Hong is scary,” said Xie Li.
“Ah, he did nag at you quite a bit,” said Jianjin.
Xie Li took a deep breath and sliced the leaves off the thick bamboo growth.
“Ninety…hundred,” he muttered.
He did a sweeping kick, sending the already cut leaves Jianshi had left behind to hit the fresh ones higher into the air.
Using the flat of his blade, he created a space under the falling leaves but his strokes were curved, sweeping the leaves up towards each other.
He sliced the leaves in a circle from the outside in, as if driving them towards a focal point. In a single, smooth stroke, a hundred leaves were cut and fell at his feet.
“That is amazing,” said Jianshi.
“How do you even…” said Jianjin.
“Fresh leaves in calm weather like this are the best to start with,” said Xie Li. “If you used dead leaves in a breeze, the difficulty goes up threefold. And then there are demon wasps, which would probably be another threefold.”
“This is Level ‘Easy’??” sobbed Jianjin.
“Demon wasps…?” said Jianshi.
Xie Li put a finger on his chin as if in thought for a moment, then beckoned Jianjin over.
“Jianjin, stand over there.”
Xie Li picked a pebble and threw it at him.
Jianjin brought up his sword and countered easily.
“Is this some new exercise?” asked Jianjin.
“Hmm,” said Xie Li, as he went overturned a rock and picked up a hissing demon cockroach the size of a thumb. The roach dug its claws into his hand and drew blood. Xie Li shook it off and flung it at Jianjin.
The roach zigzagged in the air, angrily charging at Jianjin, dodging the first strike of his sword.
“Woah,” said Jianjin as he raised his sword and focused, then with one precise whack, batted the demon roach out of the yard.
“Oh my heavens, how is it still alive…” said Jianjin, watching the angry cockroach buzz off in the distance.
“One more,” said Xie Li, dipping his hand in the pond and flicking the water at him. Among the water was a single drop of blood. “Cut this.”
Jianjin instinctively went for it, catching only the drop of blood with the edge of his sword and missing the rest of the water droplets.
“Uhh…did I miss everything?” said Jianjin.
“Jianjin, come here,” said Xie Li.
“Yes sir,” said Jianjin, skipping over to Xie Li.
Xie Li flicked his forehead.
“Why?” said Jianjin, shocked. “Why is even Senior Xie hitting my head too?”
“Don’t try to copy us. Find your own way to do this,” said Xie Li.
“Fine, everyone just likes to pick on little ol’ me anyway, ” grumbled Jianjin, walking back to the bamboo grove as he rubbed his smarting forehead.
He cut the leaves down in bunches of ten and then tossed them up in the air. He leapt into the air and started with an aggressive straight cut down the middle.
In the courtyard of the Du Manor, a fight between two top-level cultivators had begun.
Di Mie knew he was at a disadvantage using the cursed Jiutian sword. He couldn’t channel spirit aura through the sword to attack. However, the dead aura within the sword could cut through some of Li Gang’s spirit aura. This was a fight that had a small margin of error.
Li Gang, the head of Rong Jing’s elite guards, charged at Di Mie, knowing that he could win if he could make his opponent fumble.
Di Mie jumped back and put a little distance between them, then threw out the Jiutian sword like a rope dart, parrying Li Gang’s moves with precision. With each successful parry, he pushed Li Gang back.
“I thought the Valley Lord Di was famous for his explosive power, not precision!” gasped a guest.
Di Mie pulled at the strip of cloth, yanking the Jiutian sword back before Li Gang sent out a blast of aura. He kicked the Jiutian sword with his foot back up into the air. The strip of cloth around his hand and sword were wrapped in spirit aura, making it easier for him to control.
Li Gang focused on the direction of Di Mie’s hand and dodged the Jiutian sword flying his way. Di Mie gathered a ball of spirit aura in his hands and Li Gang braced himself, knowing this was the Valley Lord’s signature move. The ball of aura exploded into wind and fire. Li Gang cut through the smoke and explosion with his sword and struck.
If Di Mie parried him with Ashfire, he could ask for the match to be invalidated—
A second, smaller explosion weakened Li Gang’s strike just before blade struck blade.
The smoke cleared. Di Mie was holding Jiutian sword’s sheath.
“Behind you,” said Di Mie, yanking on the strip of cloth still in his hand.
The Jiutian sword came flying towards Li Gang’s back. He jumped back and spun around, letting out a blast of spirit aura to knock it away and tear up the black cloth.
Once his blast cleared, he saw Di Mie coming at him with the sheath of the Jiutian sword. He parried it with his own sword, only to see Di Mie’s other hand in front of him with a ball of aura. It exploded in his face and sent him reeling. He took a step back and tripped over something winding around his legs.
“It can’t be…I tore it off already,” said Li Gang, seeing the black strip of cloth still firmly attached to the Jiutian sword that tripped him. He saw the black cloth held together by white spirit threads woven within and realised Di Mie was as skilled as he was powerful.
“Aura materialisation…” uttered Li Gang.
He lost in terms of technique, but he could still put up a fight with spirit aura. He created a dense cocoon of spirit aura around him to buy time as he looked for an opening.
“Cute,” said Di Mie as he dropped the sheath of the Jiutian sword and placed both his hands on Li Gang’s spirit barrier.
Li Gang could feel the subtle tendrils of a strange aura flowing between Di Mie’s hands, stirring up his barrier. Sensing immense danger, Li Gang let go of his barrier. At that moment, Di Mie’s palm hit his chest. A ball of aura exploded and sent him flying back, crashing into the rock garden. He quickly got up, only to collapse onto his knees from his internal injuries.
Di Mie picked up the Jiutian sword, its hilt wrapped carefully in layers of enchanted black cloth. He walked over and pointed its blade at Li Gang’s throat.
“Do you yield?” asked Di Mie.
“…I yield,” said Li Gang. He got up and bowed deeply to his opponent who did not go in for the kill. “I thank you for your mercy.”
“Useless fool,” said Rong Jing, stamping his foot. “How could you fall for such cheap tricks? Valley Lord Di used palm attacks, not sword skills. And—and that foolish way of using the sword sheath shouldn’t count!”
Everyone could see the skill and ingenuity behind Valley Lord Di’s ‘cheap tricks’ and did not comment.
Only Du Yichen spoke up.
“Li Gang used spirit aura blasts as well. Valley Lord Di used no other sword except the Jiutian sword, so the challenge is valid.”
Di Mie carefully sheathed the sword and wrapped it in black cloth, passing it back to Rong Zhong to wield.
“Guards serving the Rong Clan,” said Rong Zhong, holding up the Jiutian sword by the sheath with his injured hand. “I order you to strip Rong Jing of his cultivation and banish him from the Rong Clan.”
“Don’t you dare obey him! You’re my guards,” said Rong Zhong.
The rest of the guards looked at Li Gang, who nodded at them.
Rong Jing watched as his men turned on him.
“Rong Zhong! I challenge you,” said Rong Jing, drawing his sword. “Face me yourself if you dare.”
“You can’t pay the challenge fee,” said Rong Zhong.
“Of course I can. I have boxes of gold in the manor’s treasury enough to challenge you ten times over.”
“And whose approval do you need to withdraw that gold?”
“That damn steward Zhu Yinghe is dead.”
“Who does steward Zhu answer to?”
“Useless details,” snarled Rong Jing. “Do you accept my challenge or do you want the entire clan after your head?”
“If you want the sword so much, why not hold it yourself,” said Rong Zhong, holding the sword up invitingly.
“You think I don’t dare do it? As long as I wield the sword, I can command you to kill yourself,” growled Rong Jing, activating his spirit aura. “I’ll just have to sacrifice a hand.”
Rong Jing wrapped his fingers around the sword hilt and drew it.
“If a bastard like you can do it, then it is nothing to me,” he said.
Rong Zhong sighed. He rolled up his sleeve and showed Rong Jing his hand. Despite the talismans wrapped around his hand, the dead aura’s corruption had already eaten through the bindings and spread over his shoulder.
“The more you desire the sword, the faster its dead aura will devour you,” said Rong Zhong. “I don’t desire it but it’s taken my entire arm.”
Rong Jing watched as the dead aura from the sword suddenly shot up his arm, like flames catching on dried kindling. He dropped the sword but it was too late.
His men took out talismans and covered him in spirit aura to try and slow down the spread, but like a man drowning, they could only watch as the dead aura eat him alive and sink into his spirit core, turning him into a revenant right before everyone’s eyes.
Qing Lingfeng sighed deeply to himself. He probably wasn’t getting paid for overtime.
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