25. Prized Possession (1)
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Okay, I started writing ahead again. Back to regular updates (ideally) with a double-length chapter!!

Xu Jian felt more educated in half an hour than he did reading 600 chapters of the original novel.

Through the children’s descriptions, he could track Lai Mingliao’s current progress – according to the map, he had been heading east during this period, and had already begun training with his hermit mentor. They’d reach the mountain range to get a powerful sword, and then circle back for the tournament.

The children only knew nearby villages, but that was more than enough. Xu Jian only wanted a sense of direction. The rest he could navigate from memory.

“We should go find your mother,” Xu Jian said crisply once this was all done.

“Isn’t their boss mad at you?”

“He is. That’s why we’ll be sneaking back in.”

Xu Jian led them out into the street, hair covered once again. There was still a column of smoke coming from the bank, even though it had been more than an hour. Curious, he led them in closer. There were a few people desperately attempting to smother the flames, primarily using water and sand. Old buildings burnt slower than modern ones, but Xu Jian had perhaps underestimated the amount of flammable materials in a bank.

“Oh well,” he said, and brought them back up to the palace.

The palace was normally guarded by wards, not people, and most of the demons were occupied with repairs, so it was simple to climb up and dangle a coat for the kids to climb with. He was grateful Ying Long had given him clothes; the demon race’s fabrics were incredibly distinctive, and no bit of cloth around his hair would be able to excuse it.

From what he understood, the medic had been cooped up in the medicine hall the entire time, so she wouldn’t know where the servants were. Xu Jian had only met three people, and he didn't want to interact with Weng Yu, so he went with his final option.

The prison was lightly guarded. The earth demons only looked warily at Xu Jian, likely because he brought children. He opted to not go all the way in, to avoid this situation becoming too tense.

“Hello, you all,” Xu Jian announced. “Does anyone know what happened to the staff of the palace?”

He couldn’t see most of the figures from this angle, and he doubted they could see him.

“They didn’t get driven out? Ask one of those demons,” a disciple cursed.

“I can’t. They might tattle on me.”

A murmur moved through the crowd. Finally, another person spoke up. “They must be kept in the main hall.”

“Alright. Thanks. I’ll ask the kitchen staff or something.”

“Wouldn’t they tattle?” The girl asked.

“Well, I’ll be close enough that it won’t matter.”

Xu Jian led the children to the main hall, which had guards on watch. They stopped him with spears when he tried to approach.

The children looked at him doubtfully.

“Not all plans follow through,” he said mildly.

Xu Jian pulled away his headscarf, and the demons relaxed a little. He thinned his lips at them. “Just popping into the kitchens.”

They looked suspicious. “Where is Lord Ying?”

“Looking for me. I followed these children around town and he lost track of me.”

“Why not find Lord Ying if he’s looking for you?”

“I was hungry and made myself something to eat. I didn’t know where he was when I was done, so I just came home.”

“Then why are you going to the kitchens?”

“I’m looking for their mother, and wanted to ask the staff about it.”

The demons looked at each other.

“He can only tell the truth...” One noted.

The other turned to Xu Jian. “What are your plans besides that?”

“Waiting for Lord Ying to return? Though I might escort the children and their mother home first. Haven’t decided.”

He kept his back straight and haughty. His face hadn’t relaxed and he hadn’t set it into an inoffensive expression, so he wasn’t sure what kind of attitude he was giving off. He wishes he had a mirror to experiment with this new features; maybe he could use the river below, once Ying Long kicked him out.

He was getting a little worried about that. He didn’t like hugging other people’s thighs, but Ying Long was in fact the only person strong enough to protect him. Getting pulled out of Wendian was helpful, but this place was probably safer than running around the continent when it came to avoiding Lai Mingliao. Should he beg for forgiveness? Ying Long liked begging, right?

Thankfully, the guards backed off. He marched in, the children trailing behind him with wide, terrified eyes.

He got lost immediately. The demons were an incurious bunch, and didn’t pay any attention to him, just like the ones on the wall.

“Maybe we don’t have to go to the kitchens?” Xu Jian wondered aloud.

The girl frowned. “How long have you been living here?”

“One evening. I’m unfamiliar with most of it. Hold on.” He hailed the next servant he saw, who was carrying a load of plaster. “You. Where’s the human servants?”

“Oh...they evacuated into the main hall, so I guess they’re in here...” The demon looked around with a vague expression, their elongated ears twitching like a cat’s.

“You ‘guess’? Has no one seen them?”

“No...I mean, they ought to be in the basement. The wards for the palace were all stripped when we started the siege, but there’s one still left down there. No one knows how to get rid of it, so we left it.”

Xu Jian sighed. More work for him. That sealed basement could be anything from a shelter to an escape tunnel, and he wasn't prepared for an impromptu hike. Well, maybe he could go on a trip with the kids until Ying Long had calmed down. That sounded nice.

“We’ll try knocking first, and improvise from there,” he told the children, who were tense and solemn.

He got directions to the basement, which turned out to be more of a large door at the bottom of a long, winding stone staircase. It didn’t look warded, or like it was capable of protecting anything. He gave it a nudge, and it didn’t do anything ward-like.

“Seems fine to me,” he declared, and knocked on it.

There was silence. After waiting for a reaction, he knocked again. The silence continued. It didn’t sound muffled.

“Well, time to test it.”

Xu Jian pulled his fist back, and the children backed away, lesson learned from how the last door exploded. Using only his raw strength, his fist collided with the door.

Immediately he felt tension, and the air shimmered. While the wards were still active, he looked around its edges. The barrier lined up with the doorframe, which was lodged in the stonework of the hallway, without any seams.

“I don’t think I’m allowed to take out a disciple of the Hyacinth Palace to turn this off,” he said to the children.

They frowned in disappointment.

“...Well, I still have my tricks. I’ll just have to go through them until something sticks.” Xu Jian placed his fingers against the door. The resistance was only in response to tension, so if he wanted this thing gone, he had to do it without tension.

He knocked one more time, and thought ‘System, O system.’

[SYSTEM]

Can you store this door?’

The suffocating sensation of the System’s gaze enveloped him. He knocked on the door again, more insistently.

[ACT?]

Xu Jian could usually extrapolate what the System’s monosyllabic responses meant based on context clues, but that one was beyond him. ‘Yes, I’m acting. Grab the door.’

[ACT? ACT? ACT? ACT?]

What’s wrong with you? Grab it. Is load-bearing?’

[FALSE]

Then?’

[SAMPLE 433. ACT AS HUMAN]

Xu Jian massaged his temples, really putting effort into trying to figure out what the System was so worried about.

...Is it because there’s witnesses on the other side of the door...? I told them all that I had a storage item. Like a storage ring in the novel. Because sects are secretive, people will believe anything. As a human, it’s my human compulsion to try using my storage item to get around an annoying problem.’

The pressure of the System’s gaze made Xu Jian’s skin crawl. He tapped the door one more time.

It exploded into rainbow cubes, shimmering like a thousand radiant oil slicks, bright enough that it made his eyes water. When the dust of cubes past, there was only the wide gap indented into the hall where the doorframe used to be. There were holes in the dirt at the bottom of the gap, where the frame must have been supported. If he tried carving it out, the tunnel might have collapsed, or the frame damaged. It was well-implemented.

“I’ll have to take it out later to study it,” he mused aloud.

The children peered behind him into the room beyond. It was an enormous hall, too dark to see the entirety of, with the centre lined in thick, gorgeous pillars covered in lovely paintings. He couldn’t tell if there was an escape tunnel on the other side, but considering how panicked the System had gotten, there was either an extremely powerful cultivator or a bunch of people in the room.

“Stand back. We’re not alone,” he told the children.

Xu Jian took a step inside, ready to waste his spiritual energy until he was about to die in order to avoid actually dying. He’d figure something out to replenish it. The main thing was making sure whoever was going to kill him listened to him long enough to know his intentions were pure.

He wasn’t disappointed. A flash at the corner of his eye, and he raised his hand just as a cultivator with a sword came at him. He intended to avoid it, but his body seemed to follow his hand instead, gliding through the air and pressing back just as the sword passed it. Its path was shoved to his back with only three fingers. The press of cool metal against his fingertips made him think, unbidden, take.

It exploded into cubes in the cultivator’s hands. The cultivator reeled back in shock, staring at his now-empty hand.

Bring it back.’

The sword re-emerged in an explosion of cubes, landing easily in Xu Jian’s waiting hand. There was a hum to it, like with Baixiang. He doubted he could do any special tricks, if it was bound to its owner. It was, in the very least, quite sharp.

“I’m looking for the mother of those children?” He said leadingly, gesturing with his sword to the kids still waiting beyond the entryway.

The cultivator looked back warily, confirmed there was, indeed, children there, then looked suspiciously at Xu Jian. “Who are you?”

“I was kidnapped by a brutish mountain demon, and I thus do not like him enough to not cause any trouble,” he said smoothly.

“You said he saved you,” said the girl.

“He did. By kidnapping me. I also said I don’t like him.”

“You said he was annoying.”

“Indeed. That’s why I don’t like him.”

The children assumed disarming the cultivator and having a casual conversation meant the coast was clear, and ran inside. The cultivator did not make any movement to stop them.

“Mooooom!” The foodie boy called.

From the shadows emerged a woman, white-faced and dirty. She sprinted across the hall to the children.

“Don’t-!” The cultivator shouted.

They collided into a group hug, the woman wailing, making the children cry in turn. Xu Jian tossed the sword in the air and caught it, enjoying the weight. It felt nice to hold.

“Anyway, I’m done. I think I made Lord Ying upset enough is it is, so I need to prepare for when he casts me out. They don't actually mind if you wander around, though I’m assuming anyone who has a problem with Hyacinth Palace’s new residents will be swiftly imprisoned.”

The cultivator stood up, glaring. “What is your intention?”

“Just a safe way of establishing myself, don't worry. Have you ever been backstabbed by a child before? Extremely easy to deal with. I needed to know more about the area before I was sent off.”

“He made us dumplings and rice,” said the foodie boy.

“Take your mother to the manor.” With a small prod to the System, he retrieved the teapot he had stored. “If anyone else is down here, I’ve only been in the palace a single day, but I’m willing to fill you in on the status of the world above.”

Xu Jian wasn’t totally oblivious. He didn’t have a cultivator’s reflexes, or a silver tongue. The way he redirected the blade, the way words slid easily from his mouth...Though Baixiang had assured him Xu Jinyue was dead, his skills were still embedded in this body. He felt floaty, untethered from the competency his body showed.

The children’s mother looked up at him with teary eyes. “Tha...thank you...”

“Don’t thank him! He definitely has ulterior motives! Don’t know you who he is?!” The cultivator looked above – at fellow disciples of Hyacinth Palace? - and then to Xu Jian. “That’s Xu Jinyue! The Golden Star of Wendian! There isn’t a cultivator alive who doesn’t know his reputation!”

Xu Jian was silent. His self-awareness had shaken his confidence, and no smooth words came to him.

A second cultivator dropped from the ceiling. Her blue robes were lavish and her hair crown elaborate. This person had to be a...master of some kind...Elder?

“What brings Xu Jinyue to Hyacinth Palace?” She asked. Her voice was low and cold.

“Kidnapped. Weren’t you listening?”

“I was. Rescued as well, then? From what?”

“My sect.”

Her eyes steeled at that. Xu Jian sat on the dirt floor and poured himself a cup of tea. The cultivator who attacked him looked at this with obvious discomfort, and the Elder tilted her head with a calculating look. The children escaped with their mother, and while the cultivator looked like he very much wanted to go after them, he looked like he wanted to be able to attack Xu Jian as soon as he moved more, and they escaped unaccosted.

“Why would you need to be rescued from your own sect? Were you not their prized possession?”

“I was, until I confessed all my evil deeds. Not all at once, mind. They imprisoned me before I could think of the rest of it.”

She sat down cautiously, and Xu Jian poured her a cup.

“And why would you do that?”

“Qi Deviation during banquet. Guilt-induced, of course. I’m feeble and can only tell the truth.” He took a sip of his tea.

“That’s interesting,” said the Elder, “because that’s not how Qi Deviation works.”

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