The tension in Xie Yi’s voice was enough to convince Shi Yue. He quickly settled some matters with Master Chen, then made sure that Xiang Zhe and the teacher returned safely before he accompanied his disciple to the building.
Here, too, the amount of guards had been raised. Xie Yi wouldn’t get in alone.
Zhi Ci was quite relaxed since she hardly noticed what was going on outside. When Xie Yi sat before her, her face changed a bit. With a surprising level of intimacy, she touched his shoulder. Xie Yi looked into her eyes - she might not know his true identity, but something was making her see him as a fellow victim.
“How can I help? I’ll try talking about it, if I can.”
“I don’t need to know that much. Do you know what kind of plants were being cultivated in the sect?” Xie Yi directly stated his matter.
“Plants? Lots of them. I can’t even name them all.” Zhi Ci spread her hands helplessly. "And I don't think I saw all of them, either."
“I need to know if there’s a specific one. Red or yellow blossoms, a sickeningly sweet scent. The leaves look a bit like fingers and are quite thick…” Xie Yi gestured around, trying to explain.
The more he talked, the greener Zhi Ci’s face got. “Stop! Enough, enough! I don’t want to remember those things!”
She covered her mouth and gagged once. Shi Yue frowned at her reaction.
“Dreadful things. Yes, I saw them once. I can’t tell you if they’re being grown on purpose or in which amounts, but they appeared at least. Not very pretty.”
She shuddered heavily at the memory and clutched her arms.
“I don’t think we were supposed to see. They got quite mad at us and we were punished, but no one was killed since it wasn’t our fault.”
“You don’t know anything about them?”
She shook her head. “No. If I had to guess, they were definitely going to start growing them, judging from how gruesome they looked. They were growing out of a person that stumbled into the hallway. Some new torture, maybe?”
Because the flowers grew out of the corpses on the bottom of the canyon, Xie Yi didn’t doubt that their natural habitat was bodies.
“Okay, thanks. That was all I needed to know”, Xie Yi said with a dark voice. He was staring at the ground, his face overshadowed by his hair.
“Any way I can help”, Zhi Ci said with quiet determination. If only she could talk freely, she would tell them as much as she could. At least this was something she could coincidentally help with; maybe because it was a coincidence that she had seen it that it wasn't restricted to be spoken about.
The guard in the room threw a questioning glance at Shi Yue, who nodded mutely. Following that, the guard approached Zhi Ci, who obediently stood up and bowed.
“See you again sometime”, she said, smiling surprisingly brightly for someone who was not allowed to leave the building. Xie Yi forced himself to smile back, then left with Shi Yue.
He could feel his master’s gaze burning itself into the back of his head.
“I need another while to think about it”, he told Shi Yue quietly. “I don’t want to say something wrong and possibly cause you to miss out on other things due to that.”
Shi Yue took a larger step to catch up with him and placed a hand on his shoulder. Gently squeezing, he reassured his disciple. “Alright. But come to me if you have found anything, okay? I trust your instincts.” - And knowledge.
Looking over Xie Yi’s weary appearance, Shi Yue found his mood turning a bit desolate.
“Enough for now. You haven’t taken a single break these days. Go and take a rest, find Xu Yan, or visit your nephew.”
“Can I take Xu Yan to see Su Liang?”, Xie Yi whined, wide eyes looking at Shi Yue.
Shi Yue did not want Su Liang to be around other disciples for now, but he knew Xu Yan well and frankly speaking, he did not have the heart to reject Xie Yi.
“Fine. But make sure to ask Xue Hua before you bring him inside.”
Xie Yi’s eyes were shining.
With a doting expression, Shi Yue wanted to caress the youth’s hair, but was left hanging in the air when Xie Yi - oblivious to the movement - skipped ahead.
Now a bit grumpy, Shi Yue hung behind.
The first thing Xie Yi did upon finding Xu Yan on the way back into the main area was jumping his friend. Xu Yan grunted when a taller person embraced him so tightly that he could hardly breathe.
It wasn’t hard to recognize Xie Yi, who was the only one to do such a thing. Xu Yan patted his arm. “Air!”
“Sorry.” Xie Yi loosened his grip a bit but kept himself stuck to his friend. Xu Yan was currently the only person he could hug, with Mingtian gone, Shi Yue not being an option and Su Liang being a little ball.
“Welcome back”, the other warmly greeted, ignoring Xie Yi rubbing his head against him in a clearly animalistic manner adopted from Mingtian.
At the same time, a chill went down his spine.
Confused, Xu Yan looked around to found Shi Yue standing not too far away. The Grandmaster was smiling kindly and nodded in greeting, nothing unusual.
Xu Yan smiled at the Grandmaster, the coldness he felt not vanishing.
When he patted Xie Yi’s head, it only intensified.
Xu Yan opened his mouth, frowning.
“Say, Xiao Yi…”
“Hmm?” Xie Yi let go of him. The chilly feeling slowly subsided.
“...No, it’s nothing”, Xu Yan laughed awkwardly.
He hadn’t noticed anything at all. It wasn’t weird that Master Li was still watching Xiao Yi instead of carrying on. The coldness wasn’t weird, either, only an illusion.
Anyway, even if he was Xiao Yi’s best friend, there were matters that weren’t any of his business. He couldn’t understand a Grandmaster’s thoughts, so he should keep himself out of it just in case he messed something up.
Good for Xiao Yi, though.
Although he had a feeling that the poor Grandmaster might feel more than a bit of infuriation in the days to come if he decided to pursue Xiao Yi.
“Don’t glue yourself to me like that. Let me look at you; are you hurt? Senior Sister was in a huge panic that you were suddenly gone, you know? Although not many people noticed.”
“I went through hell”, Xie Yi complained. “Kind of literally. All a part of the huge mess that is going on right now.”
Xu Yan’s face darkened a bit. Everyone had seen the sect leader being brought in, so they knew his status was complicated.
“It will be fine”, Xu Yan tried to reassure himself more than anyone else. “Are you busy right now? Truth be told, I’d kind of need a distraction…”
“I wanted you to meet Su Liang!” Xie Yi glanced back at Shi Yue, who, for some reason, was still around.
The Grandmaster nodded. “I’m going to the upper grounds anyway, so I’m coming along. Just in case the guards decide to be warier of Xu Yan approaching at this time.”
“Makes sense”, Xie Yi happily agreed.
Xu Yan; who had been helping out Li Mei and thus had been walking in and out of the higher grounds, who was accepted as an acquaintance of the Grandmaster Li, who knew all the guards of the higher grounds by name…
...Shut his mouth and smiled along awkwardly.
The guards saluted to Shi Yue approaching, nodded at Xie Yi and smiled at Xu Yan who trailed behind.
Around halfway through, Shi Yue parted from them to visit the sect leader, who had been placed into his home by now. Xu Yan breathed out slowly.
“Do you think Xue Hua will mind me visiting?”
“Who knows. I’ll ask.” Xie Yi shrugged, not feeling worried.
He walked into Shi Yue’s home like it was his own and approached the small pond where the bird liked sitting. Xu Yan stopped farther away, while Xie Yi stepped onto the grass.
Su Liang yipped happily, struggling in his father’s arms. Xue Hua looked up, his rainbow eyes a bit tired.
“You’re back”, the bird said with a weary smile. “Is Yue back with you? An attendant informed me, but…”
“Back and perfectly healthy”, Xie Yi confirmed. “He’s off to see the sect leader again. Sorry, we ran right off to check something before even coming here.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Xue Hua shook his head.