Barely five meters tall and of questionable integrity the circular wall surrounding this village did not look like much in Xie Chen’s eyes. Made of packed earth and fortified by treated wood it hardly seemed enough to fend off attacks from beasts much less any armed force. She supposes guarding against animals was its sole purpose however. Isolated as this place is it’s unlikely they have much contact with the outside world and chose to simply live off the surrounding forest. A feasible method given that the village barely seems large enough to fit a few thousand people and her Xie clan’s lands are exceptionally rich in natural resources. No, this wall certainly isn’t up to Xie standards. Yet with the realization she’s come to it suddenly feels far more imposing than before.
“L-let us turn back, fellow daoists. Nothing good remains here.”
“Yah, no shite.” Zhi fires back before catching herself. “Uhh, ah mean…”
“What my martial sister means to say.” Yating says before Zhi can shove her foot further into her mouth. “Is that it is not in pursuit of good that we have come here, Lady Xie.”
“Look, I found something! Over here!”
Through a gap in the wall Mu spots the back of a bookshelf and more specifically a box with a familiar mysterious pattern on it hidden behind said bookshelf but now plainly visible through the gap. She shouts back over her shoulder while pulling the box free, ignorant to the flash of horror crossing Chen’s features as she does.
The edge of the box catches on the shelf making the fragile wood give out and toppling the entire shelf. It falls right into the already half-broken wall breaking it as well which in turn causes the entire house to come down with a thunderous crash.
“Hehe, oops?” Mu says while scratching her head. “M-maybe the books will still be intact?”
A stale, dusty wind wafts past all of them. Intuition causes the hairs atop their necks to raise when they realize not all of it originates from the building that just fell. The sounds of dry earth cracking, hoarse groans and movement in the distance confirm the veracity of that feeling.
“Everyone, we must leave before we are spotted.” Chen commands and takes the lead. Her brow furrows seeing how deep into the village they’ve ventured. Sending a quick prayer to her ancestors she desperately hopes they’ll be able to make it out in time. Reality is cruel however and before they even make it halfway half a dozen figures stumble into their path.
With skin as dry and cracked as the earth below and little in the way of weaponry they do not appear like much. Each is practically skin over bones and seems more of a threat to themselves than to others yet like much in the world of cultivation looks can be deceiving. Making a snap decision Xie Chen raises a hand to gesture for their group to stop and points towards a side street.
“This way, we’ll go around.”
“No need, Lady Xie! We can take them. An, Zhi, Yating, let’s get them quick!”
Before Chen can stop her Mu leaps into the fray. She inhales deeply to draw qi into her lungs and exhales alongside her punch, the blow shattering her opponents ribcage and sending him flying several meters. It is only after the fact that she realizes she failed to replenish any qi and that every single one of the figures are staring right at her. For a moment the entire village is completely quiet. Then all hell breaks loose.
“Back! To the village center!”
Xie Chen loudly shouts her command while drawing her ornate scimitar and severing the heads of the two closest to Mu. With halberd swinging Yating pulls the pugilist out of the melee and starts sprinting away with An and Zhi in tow. Mere moments later Chen catches up and they all make their way deeper into the maze of houses and streets, the noises of hundreds of pursuers echoing through the quiet village.
“I’m sorry.” Chen apologizes
“L-lady Xie, what da fook are dose?”
“Lifestealers, Lady Zhi. I cannot afford to let them be brought out of here. Aim for their heads.”
Before Zhi can finish her question Chen speeds up to meet an incoming group of enemies. Her scimitar cuts through the first’s neck and then the second before failing to get through a third and becoming stuck halfway through. Another takes hold of her arm before she can pull free. She clicks her tongue and passes her scimitar to her other hand to cut herself free. Before she can do so Yating’s halberd severs the offending limbs and the Tai shoulder checks the now armless lifestealer out of the way while shouting backwards.
“Don’t stop moving. We cannot afford to get caught.”
She sweeps her halberd wide to clear their immediate surroundings without stopping. Upon spotting a two story building that seems slightly sturdier than the rest she rushes up the external stairs, jumps up onto the railings of a balcony that seems to lead to several rooms and uses it to leap onto the roof. Extending her hand down for those who follow she assists everyone else in making their way up there as well. Mu furrows her brow. They’re all cultivators. They can jump higher than that. Why would she pull them up? She’s about to ask when An speaks up while following Yating’s exact path from roof to roof.
“They don’t have qi.”
“That is correct, Lady An.” Chen replies while blinking in surprise.
“They overpowered me?” She grimaces.
“I mean no offense.” An hurriedly continues while looking over her shoulder and bowing her head in apology. Seeing the Xie heiress take a moment to consider how much she should say, Yating decides to explain instead.
“Lifestealers are abominations but one step away from being demonic. They are made when every single bit of qi, including that which keeps even mortals alive, is pulled out of a body. They are empty creatures seeking to fill the hollow void inside of them, not alive yet not quite dead. I suppose it matters little in the end. What does matter is what they can do and how to stop them.”
She gazes down at the scenery below. Already hundreds of them are drawing closer and closer to their location faster than they can shake them off. She squeezes the haft of her weapon harder to stop her hands from shaking.
“If they get a hold of you they will pull the qi out of your body in an attempt to reclaim what they once had. Do not let them or you will become one of them, mindless and forever trapped on the precipice between life and death. Unless they have drained many foes their strength is rarely above Qi Condensation, however…” She bites her lip and takes a deep breath. “The problem is our surroundings. This place is devoid of qi. I cannot use my arts here and I suspect Lady Xie is similarly disadvantaged.”
Receiving a curt nod in response Yating considers their options. While it’s a cold one she understands the Xie’s decision to lead them away from the exit the moment these things caught the scent of their qi. Lifestealers don’t relent. They’ll chase them until they’ve consumed them or are no longer able to continue following them. Leading them out of here into a place where they could feast and grow stronger would be utterly disastrous for the Xie clan. She shakes her head, the time for blame is later. For now they must prioritize finding a way to survive.
“There is more than one way for a dead zone to form.” She says, referring to the qi deprived area around them. “Shifts in the ley lines, drastic adjustments to the landscape, changes in the winds of qi or…”
“...an artifact.” Chen finishes for her. “If this one may make a suggestion, such an artifact is most likely to be at the center of the dead zone.”
“Fight through whoever’s in the way, bust up the artifact and take whatever we find back to master. Got it, we’ll be fine.” Mu nods with a smile not quite as honest as her usual one, doing her best to shake the group out of the funk they’ve found themselves in. Leading by example she leaps ahead, lands on the house next to the one Yating’s leaping to and promptly crashes through the fragile roof.
Even though she should chide her and doubts it’ll go as well as Mu says, Yating can’t help but smile. Finding her grip on her halberd just the slightest bit lighter again she follows right after An and jumps off the rooftops. Unlike An however she leaps straight for the ground, watching in surprise as the girl lands softly on the roof Mu just went through and follows her master inside and back out through the door. Zhi follows in their wake with a resigned smile, sliding down a wooden beam and cracking her knuckles once she lands.
Chen can’t help but be impressed. While their organization is lacking compared to that of her own unit they have a level of trust between them that’s rarely found amongst cultivators. Pangs of envy flow through her making her shake her head to clear her mind.
She slots into their teamwork with practiced expertise, filling the gaps in between their uncoordinated attacks to ensure no one is hit, grappled or slowed. Together the five manage to make their way through several groups of stragglers, each fight little more than a temporary inconvenience compared to the vast horde they can hear throughout the city. With the thundering sounds of thousands of footsteps surrounding them from all directions they speed up if anything, making their way through the narrow streets of this accursed village in record time until suddenly Xie Chen suddenly slams to a halt. Her sword stops mid-strike and her eyes widen at the sight of the wretched creature in front of her.
The long black hair she was so used to seeing on her subordinate is plastered to his frame in greasy strings, his empty eyes looking straight at her without seeing. She remembers his once kind smile and hardly recognises the hungry snarl it’s become. His friendly countenance as he gave her advice on the first campaign she led and the stalwart strength she could lean on when she faltered overlay in her mind with the bony frame from which his robes hang and the primal rage so plainly visible on his features.
For a moment her mind is cast back in time to when they first met. Back when her life was so much simpler. When there was no doubt she would lead the clan to greater heights in time and she had not yet run into the bottleneck she failed to break through until that one fateful night with Suwan.
Despite her advantages that campaign was not one she was confident she could finish successfully. She was only fourteen years old back then, barely strong enough to be considered a proper cultivator and only had theoretical knowledge on how to lead her squad into battle. It was the man from her squad that now stands before her, lunging at her with none of the intelligence he displayed back then, that had advised her throughout those months. She recalls her own nervous plea for him to stay afterwards, going so far as to offer him a promotion he did not have the cultivation base for in order to keep him under her command. To her dismay he’d refused and explained his years of service were for the purpose of improving the lives of his clan and village. In her mind’s eye she can see his respectful bow before he turned away and headed home to enjoy his retirement even though it’s been more than a decade since.
He doesn’t look a day older than she remembers.
Her heart catches in her throat. Just how long has this been going on? This entire time she’s been trying to raise her own standing, boost her cultivation and climb the social ladder. All while oblivious to the evil rotting her clan’s territory from within until Song Suwan’s disciples arrived. Her arms lose all strength as her vibrant green eyes meet dead ones that refuse to stare back. ‘I’m sorry. I’ve failed you.’
A tear rolls down her cheek as she prepares herself to accept his anger. In slow motion she can see his extended arms grow closer, his maw open wide and the blade of Yating’s halberd slice through his neck. She’s shaken out of her daze when the Tai’s hand clamps down on her shoulder so hard it hurts. With a grimace and a shout the white haired woman puts her full strength into it and throws Xie Chen over the horde of foes rapidly encircling them. The throw takes her so far she even goes over the rest of the group’s heads before crashing down in front of them. Mu looks back with wide eyes.
“Take her!” Yating shouts back while swinging her halberd wildly around herself. “Go! Don’t look back!”
Biting down hard on her lip Mu does as she says and slings the Xie clan heiress over her shoulder for the last stretch of their run. With Yating buying them valuable seconds they make it to the plaza in the middle of the village, rushing through it and forcing open the doors of the mayoral palace at its center. Together with Zhi, Mu pushes the wooden drop bar in place just in time for heavy impacts to slam into the palatial gate from the other side.
Taking a deep breath that fails to cycle qi through her lungs she looks around, taking in An’s frantic breathing, Zhi’s loud swearing and Chen’s near catatonic state.
“D-don’t worry, everyone. Master will save us. She- she always appears at the right time, remember? We’re gonna- We’ll be fine.”
Golden Carp City. A place where Suwan’s fate had changed greatly, saddling her with several disciples or as she saw it now, blessing her with multiple companions. She takes in a deep breath as she steps through the city gates, wondering whether the others have arrived yet.
“Lady Song!” A harrowed voice calls out prompting the blonde to look over.
“Please help! Sir Fu has gone missing!”