Zhi Ci looked haggard and sickly. Her throat and wrists were encased in a black, collar-like cloth that not only sealed her spiritual energy but also made her unable to leave the area.
She looked up when Xie Yi entered. He was relieved to find that her eyes were still alive.
“Zhi Ci”, Xie Yi sadly called and she gave him a trembling smile.
“Good morning”, Shi Yue greeted her softly as he sat down in front of her. “Your name is Zhi Ci, correct? I am Master Li. Xie Yi is my succeeding disciple.”
Although the ceremony wasn’t completed yet, it has been declared in front of people so it was only a matter of the show.
Zhi Ci relaxed visibly at hearing that. “Master Li”, she whispered back. That Xie Yi was a Grandmaster’s succeeding disciple at his age was quite amazing.
“Are you alright? I know being imprisoned isn’t overly comfortable, but…” Shi Yue trailed off.
Zhi Ci shook her head. Her messy ponytail followed the movement. “No, I don’t see myself as a prisoner here. I can go outside into the garden, have my own room, and can move freely in here. Besides, Xie Yi’s friend Xu Yan has come over every day.”
Xie Yie exhaled slowly. He was relieved to hear that they allowed it.
“Zhi Ci”, Shi Yue said, turning serious. “You were… a sacrifice of the Demonic Sect. Can you tell us something about it? Whatever info you have is useful.”
Her mouth clamped shut. Turning deadly pale, she lowered her head.
Shi Yue sighed. “I see. You cannot, can you? Don’t push yourself. We will hear everything once we have solved the issue of the poison in your body.”
Xie Yi tilted his head in confusion. Poison?
“There are poisons that can forbid you from talking under a contract”, Shi Yue reminded him and Xie Yi made a sound of understanding.
He had completely forgotten that this existed! Wait, had he taken something like that, too…? He couldn’t remember.
“Do you think you can answer some questions?”
“I’ll try.” Zhi Ci nervously licked her lips.
“I have heard from Xu Yan and Xie Yi that you were accompanying a girl with a numbered name and that it’s likely you were intended as a sacrifice for her.” Shi Yue tapped a finger on his knee. “Although we know a lot of naming patterns, I don’t believe we have encountered this one before. Are there several of them?”
“I know of a third, fourth, fifth and sixth”, she mumbled with a frown. “Of them, only the fourth is still alive… Well, somewhat. I don’t think he will make it.”
“What of a first?”
Zhi Ci fell quiet. She thought about it for quite some time. “I… don’t think I’ve seen the first. But I don’t know if they’re simply somewhere else.”
Xie Yi’s fingers tightened around his clothes. He was the first one in his last life. Since this time he wasn’t around, who was the one to become the first?
“What is it about them? Why numbered children?”
Zhi Ci bit her finger. “I don’t know much. I only know that Xiao Zai often got medicine. They were giving her food regularly and she was protected.”
Shi Yue had not heard of the numbered children in the last time, so he was frowning deeply. What had changed?
He glanced over at Xie Yi, whose head was suspiciously lowered and a sad thought crawled into his brain.
“I believe you know about the things the Demonic Sect did”, Shi Yue prodded. “Did you never have the thought to run?”
“Then why not do it? You were outside. You could have called for help.” Troubled, Shi Yue’s voice turned a bit harsher. He did not understand why Zhi Ci would not take the chance.
The girl mumbled an incoherent reply.
Shi Yue frowned. “Speak up. I cannot hear you.”
Zhi Ci began shivering. She bit her lip tightly, red droplets appearing. Tear spiller over her eyes as she cried quietly.
“Running is not that easy”, she forced out. “It’s scary. If you try to run, they punish you, but it’s only because you did something bad. And they don’t like doing it either, it hurts them too, to see us hurt, but because we don’t follow the rules, they have to do it. It’s for our sake.”
She began rambling, talking quicker and quicker.
“We’re just children. Of course we don’t understand everything they do. But they always give food and shelter and teach us and help us grow up. What they do, it makes us stronger. All of it is for us, we owe them this much, we at least owe them to not betray the ones that raised us-”
She was slowly raising her trembling hands to her face. Her angry voice broke into a sob and she hid her eyes behind her hands. Shaking her head violently, she continued to ramble.
“I know it’s bad, but-... To survive, we-... It’s not that easy! It’s not that easy to run!”
“They know best”, Xie Yi said monotonically, staring into nowhere.
“Yes!” Zhi Ci placed her hands together in an attempt to make them stop trembling. She was shouting. “Even though I know it’s wrong!”
Shi Yue watched the scene in terror.
It was hard enough to take a demonic cultivator prisoner and although they knew the sect had children, they had never managed to catch one. They were much faster in committing suicide than their adult counterparts, pretty much the moment the slightest chance of being captured appeared. He had never heard what went on their minds.
“You don’t understand”, Zhi Ci repeated through her sobs. “They find reasons to punish you. They make sure you’re in pain, suffering, all alone, hungry and cold and defenceless, but then they come and help you. And they’re so kind, they explain why what you did was wrong, and why they had to punish you, and then they give you something and the pain goes away and your mind is all fuzzy but you’re feeling safe again-”
She laughed, slightly insane.
“And they talk and talk and soothe you and make you feel comfortable, until you do something wrong again, and then you feel guilty and terrible for doing it because you are the one making them punish you and it’s your fault and we make so many mistakes, there is no way we can go out into the world like this, can we? We need their protection. Everywhere else, it would be worse…”
Her voice faded. Her shoulders slumped down. Her thin, trembling hand reached over to Xie Yi, tugging at his sleeve. He flinched.
“You understand, right? You understand?”, she sobbed. “So please, please help Xiao Zai out of there! Before… Before she thinks like this, too!”
It was like seeing a mirror.
Xie Yi trembled as well, taking her hand into his. It had taken him the death of his two beloved people to break out of this trance and these years to slowly see the wrongs in how they taught.
“I will”, he vowed. “I will. She won’t stay there.”
Shi Yue had been quiet all this while. Now, he stood up rapidly, pressing a hand to his head. “My god…”
If they could prove that Zhi Ci was talking the truth, they had to give that information to the other sects as soon as possible.
“This is insane”, he snarled.
There it was, his explanation. Why the Demonic Sect leader Xie Yi had appeared so mindless. He had been specifically groomed to turn like that, unable to break away from the people that had raised him.
Devoted to the point of forgetting all rationality.
He knew cases where women or children, despite being beaten by men, kept on defending the criminal. Usually it was because the man would often be kind afterwards to keep them quiet.
Those victims, too, would insist that everything was their fault.
It seemed the Demonic Sect acted on the same principle, only worse.1This is basically a form of the Stockholm Syndrome paired with very careful teaching. If you look back at the old times where slavery existed, you'll find that it was indeed possible to brainwash people so heavily that even when faced with the chance of freedom, they were unable to run away. The Stockholm Syndrome, too, is a pretty weird medical condition. For those who don't know; people with this condition emphasize with the criminal/captor who has hurt them, often to the point of defending them and trying to help them out
Seeing Xie Yi all quiet from the side of his eyes, only holding the crying Zhi Ci’s hands, he felt a sense of dismay. The look in his eyes was too weird.
“Zhi Ci, we will do our best. Take a break for today”, Shi Yue said to the girl who nodded slowly.
He carefully grabbed Xie Yi, tugging him to stand up and follow him outside.
Turned to the guard, he gave a quick order. “Don’t let anyone else interrogate her today. I’ll be sending over Xu Yan, the young disciple, later - please let him in. Make sure she isn’t let out of sight today.”
“Yes”, the guard obediently replied with a bow.