"You know, you didn't have to intervene. I would have been just fine." Yue said in the comfortable silence that had commenced.
After the confrontation with the two Peak Lords, Yue followed after Jin ZiXin up all 9999 steps of the mountain, until they got to the sect grounds proper. The entire way, they linked arms and played catch up, where they told each other everything that they had missed during the last year of absence.
Jin ZiXin gave Yue a curious look when he heard her comment and stated thoughtlessly, "You would have been fine, but Hui DuYi and Liu Xiang would be dead. I'd rather not have to replace them."
She smiled at him in response, and squeezed his arm tighter. "I wouldn't have killed them, I'd have just.... removed a few parts."
"Really?" Jin ZiXin rose an eyebrow to convey his doubt.
"Yes. You're my best friend. I don't want to cause unnecessary trouble for you." Yue emphasized the words 'unnecessary trouble', clearly conveying her distaste for it.
Jin ZiXin felt a blush come up to his ears, as the kind words stated so simply always made him feel especially grateful. To be honest, he wasn't sure what would have become of him if he hadn't met and befriended Yue.
It was when he was twelve years old, and had been a member of the Heavenly Abyss Sect for seven years, that he first met Yue.
At the time, he was on a mission together with his then Shifu Wu Mei and two of his fellow disciples to track down a malicious ghost who had already murdered fourteen people. Jin ZiXin, who didn't believe in cultivation and was vocal about it even then, had spent the entire journey to the affected village reading a few scrolls that he had managed to smuggle along.
They were texts on the history and geography of this strange, new world, and Jin ZiXin could hardy go through two paragraphs without having to suppress the laughter in his throat.
Cultivation and immortals were everywhere!
Even in history books, they were dominated by things like this and that person ascended to immortality, or this person founded a cultivation sect, or this person fought that person to the death. Truly, it was ridiculous, but when he finally managed to weed out all of the nonsense and fairytales, he managed to gather a somewhat accurate picture of how the world worked.
Regardless, when they arrived at this village, they found it to be akin to a ghost town. All of the windows were boarded shut, and there was nobody outside. It was unnaturally silent, not so much as a bird chirping or a bug buzzing.
Even Jin ZiXin, who didn't believe in ghosts, knew that there was something odd at work here.
The first place that they went to was the Village Chief's house.
The house was small and quaint, like the rest of the village. There was absolutely nothing extravagant about it, nothing to say that this was the home of an important person. No signs of wealth, or prosperity, or success.
Wu Mei was the one to knock on the front door. She banged loudly on it, demanding the attention of whoever was inside.
It took several minutes before there was a sound on the other side of the door, like someone was unlocking it. Jin ZiXin waited patiently with the others as the last lock out of four, if his count was correct, was undone. Then, the door was slowly, slowly opened, revealing an eye set in a severe face with harsh lines and some loose grey hair.
The dark eye looked them over carefully and the man asked quietly, "Who are you?"
"Peak Lord Wu Mei, of the Heavenly Abyss Sect. You summoned us for assistance with a malicious ghost, correct?"
Her tone brokered absolutely no argument, and the man on the other side of the door gave them stinking eyes, looking them all over thoroughly before he deigned to open the door wider, just wide enough for them to carefully squeeze through, one after the other. As soon as Jin ZiXin — the last one — was completely through, the man dragged the door shut and looked all four locks.
Jin ZiXin then found that the inside of the house was just as shabby and small as the outside. The air was stuffy and stale, as if the windows hadn't been opened in a long time, and there was a stench of rot coming from another room.
It smelled like someone had died in it.
It took everything Jin ZiXin had not to cover his nose, and the only reason that he didn't was because Wu Mei would undoubtedly scold him if he did. She was always going on about the expected knowledge of cultivators, and one of which was apparently how to appropriately deal with corpses, both fresh and old ones.
These were things he did not want to know.
The four cultivators settled down around a table, none of them mentioning the smell. It was An Bao, one of Jin ZiXin fellow disciples, who first started speaking, once it became clear that Wu Mei was not in the mood for it.
"Could you tell us when the ghost first appeared?" An Bao asked in his characteristically quiet voice.
The Village Chief seemed to jerk, his whole body swaying and he abruptly stared at them with large, startled eyes, as if he had forgotten that they were there. He blinked rapidly and furrowed his white eyebrows, and finally asked, "W-what?"
"The ghost." Jin ZiXin said, finding that he wanted to leave this house and its smell far behind him as fast as possible. "When did it first appear? Where was it? Did someone actually see it? Are the person or people who saw it still alive? How did they describe it? Could somebody who has seen it draw a picture of it? Also, we need the names, dates of death, means of death, age and gender of all victims."
The Village Chief just stared at him, eyes unfocused. Jin ZiXin frowned in annoyance. "Well?" he barked out, snapping his fingers in front of the Village Chief's eyes and startling the man back into reality.
"Oh, yes...." the old man swiveled his head from side to side, clearly trying to regain his senses.
The old ma pushed himself up to his feet and bent down in a low bow, his fingers twiddling in front of him. "I will, I will go get the witness."
They waited until the man was out of hearing range before they started discussing amongst each other.
Long Kun, the other disciple with them on this journey, stated, "He won't be any help."
"You don't know that. Don't be mean, Xiao Kun." An Bao said, his voice strong despite the low volume.
An Bao was the oldest disciple of the lot, being twenty years old. He had grown up in the same village as Long Kun, who was three years younger, and they had participated in the disciple selection exam together with Jin ZiXin when he was five.
Jin ZiXin wouldn't say that he was friends with them, being as they were both very serious about cultivation and didn't appreciate his views on the subject, but they had an amicable relationship.
"I'm not being mean, it's the truth." Long Kun insisted and leaned over the table so he could impress his seriousness onto An Bao. Wu Mei sighed where she sat right next to Jin ZiXin, and he threw her a glance from the corner of his eye.
"Enough!" Wu Mei snapped, her voice gruff and her tone harsh. "An Bao, go find Village Chief and make sure we actually get that information. Long Kun, Jin ZiXin, you will both go out into the village and see if you can find anything suspicious. You both have your emergency flares, right?"
Here, she paused just long enough for them both to nod. "Good." she determined. "Now scram!"
Jin ZiXin wasted no time in getting out of that house and away from its disgusting smell. However, the further he veered into the village, the more he noticed that all houses carried the smell, to some degree or another. It was enough to make the hair on the back of his neck stand up, the unsettling sensation that he was in the middle of a giant trap taking hold of him.
There was no way that ghosts were involved, but that didn't mean that there wasn't a murderer on the loose.
His eyes narrowed in consideration. He felt that he had just stumbled on the heart of the problem. If there really was a murderer on the loose, then what was he supposed to do about it? He knew, technically, that he was supposed to deliver them to justice, but did that mean kill them? Carry them off into a secret prison? Relocate them another place for rehabilitation? Because he hadn't read of any court of law, no institution that would make an unbiased judgement.
And even at twelve years of age, he had yet to kill anyone.
Jin ZiXin snuck through the village as quietly as he could, sneaking between old, worn houses in the twilight. There was no sunlight to lit his path, as whatever light remained was covered by dark clouds, and he was soon forced to light a small torch, barely bigger then his finger, in order to see.
However, no matter how long he searched, he could find nothing suspicious, nothing to point toward danger or a killer. The only thing that was truly odd, that actually stood out to him as out of place, was the constant smell of decay.
Even in places where the death-rate was high, a smell like this, that laid blanketed over the entire village, didn't occur.
His eyes were narrowed in concentration as he crept along the buildings walls and tried to peer through cracks in windows boardings. But he could see nothing of interest, nothing to indicate that things were as bad as they seemed.
Then night fell properly.
Suddenly, the feeling that he was being observed grew exponentially.
Jin ZiXin rose to his feet where he had been crouching next to a window, hoping to hear something. He held out the small torch in his hand and stared into the darkness of the night. Was it supposed to fall that fast? It felt like he had blinked, and suddenly it was the middle of the night.
He could see nothing. Soon, he couldn't even see the building less then two meters away from him.
He didn't waste a single second, and shot off one of his emergency flares without hesitation.
Jin ZiXin stared up after it, but he couldn't even tell if it ignited. In fact, he could barely see more then a meter in front of him now. His line of sight appeared to get smaller every passing minute, and he hadn't read anything about this.
Was it a natural phenomenon? A natural occurrence of fog or mist? Was the only difference how dark it made things?
Or was it manmade, a trap by the killer?
Jin ZiXin couldn't tell, and that alone made the trap — if it was one — successful.
He ran. It was the objectively smart thing to do, and Wu Mei would agree with him. He could stay and wait for assistance, yes, but that would be assuming that the flare had done its intended job. Jin ZiXin couldn't afford to hope for the best in a dangerous situation. He had to make the worst assumption possible, and try to figure out a way to survive it.
So he ran, and he ran, and he ran. He didn't stop running until he was abruptly out of the mist, and found himself on the edge of the village, near a grove of tall trees.
Breathing deeply, he was startled out of his thoughts by a sweet voice coming from above,
"You look like there's a demon on your tail."