As they cautiously explored from the storerooms, to the stables, to the halls, the spaces and hallways became more finished. The cultivators seemed to be moving toward more heavily used areas. There was still very little in the rooms, but there were signs of old habitation--empty sconces on the walls and crumbling furnishings.
They reached a larger, central room which still had furniture; a large table, partially crushed under a fall of rock from above. A hanging light in the center still held night pearls--dim, but casting a faint glow like thin moonlight. The room had other, empty doorways leading away from it.
There, sitting on a rock and with her back turned to the cultivators, was a weeping woman. She was hunched over her knees and sitting on her heels. Her hair was loose and hid her face as she shook with silent sobs.
Shen Qingqiu cast two flare charms at the figure; one from his fan, already in his hand, and a weaker one from his free hand. They flew forward like arrows, but the weeping woman vanished just as the weightless orbs were about to reach her. The flares instead passed through the open space, sticking to the far wall and throwing sharp shadows from the rocks. Mu Qingfang, who had moved to grab Shen Qingqiu's arm, paused.
The cultivators had their swords ready, but didn't rush forward.
Liu Qingge blinked. "It didn't move."
"I didn't see it either," Qi Qingqi replied. "Where did it go?"
"No, I mean, it didn't move. There was no twitch like it was about to jump or run. It just vanished."
There was a moment of thoughtful silence. "An illusion, then," Yue Qingyuan concluded.
Qi Qingqi looked worried. "That was... incredibly realistic."
"Shen-shixiong, what if that had been a real survivor?" Mu Qingfang asked, voice tight.
"Flare charms are entirely harmless," Shen Qingqiu said stiffly. "At worst, they would have given her a scare."
"He was acting on my instructions," Yue Qingyuan interjected calmly. He touched Shen Qingqiu's arm. "Qingqiu-shidi, you know I'll always be very careful what I ask you to do."
Shen Qingqiu blinked. "Yes?"
Liu Qingge narrowed his eyes at the spot the 'woman' had huddled. "I see marks on the dirt, there. Like footprints. It's still here, casting another illusion to mislead us."
"The footmarks appear to lead toward that tunnel," Qi Qingqi indicated. "But they vanish when I circulate my qi."
"It's trying to lead us into a trap," Yue Qingyuan observed. "How frightening for the villagers, to deal with this."
"No wonder they made the amulets," Shen Qingqiu said. "An eye to... see through tricks? A sun, if it's afraid of light?"
Qi Qingqi looked up at the chandelier. "The light level is lower, too. I thought it was all from the chandelier, but it's dimmer, now. It must have made the room appear brighter. So we'd be sure to see it."
"Everyone remember to circulate your qi periodically," Yue Qingyuan reminded them. "Let's see where it's trying to lead us."
The larger space where they'd seen the creature was apparently some sort of dining or meeting room. There were similar rooms nearby.
Qi Qingqi, currently on point, held up a hand and the rest of the group halted. Silently, she pointed ahead. There was a body, lying in a pool of light. It was curled up and still, under a large, empty night pearl wall sconce. The light came from a dozen dim night pearls held in its dead hands; possibly taken from the sconces as the living body passed them. There was a simple leather satchel close by, half-hidden by the body.
Yue Qingyuan cast a muffling charm, and they conferred.
Shen Qingqiu was looking at the body. "An obvious trap," he said derisively.
"It might be a distraction," Liu Qingge reminded him.
"An obvious distraction," Shen Qingqiu muttered. "Uninspired. Lacks originality."
"They're certainly not alive, at this point," Mu Qingfang stated. "I sense no signs of natural life from here."
Well, he would know.
"No one touch the body, yet," Shen Qingqiu warned them. "There's some sort of unclean energy attached to it. I can't tell what or how much, from here."
"The aftermath of a possession?"
"Perhaps," Shen Qingqiu agreed. "Or a curse."
They worked in pairs to ensure the area was clear of danger. It was slow going; each would survey an area, circulate their qi to be sure of casting off illusions, then move forward to examine it. Then, Qi Qingqi stayed with Shang Qinghua and Mu Qingfang while Yue Qingyuan, Shen Qingqiu, and Liu Qingge moved forward to inspect the body.
Liu Qingge kept Cheng Luan ready to skewer the corpse if it moved; Shen Qingqiu first inspected it from a distance. Yue Qingyuan stood close by, borrowed sword drawn.
"There are several energy markers," Shen Qingqiu said after a few minutes. "One is diffuse and unclean. At least one is highly focused; an artifact, I think. There may be more, too weak to sense individually." He produced a stick--actually one of Duan Qingze's metal skewers--from a qiankun bag. "One energy marker is in that bag. I'll separate it from the body." He waited for Yue Qingyuan's nod--it took a moment--then used the skewer to drag the bag closer. He paused to evaluate, then hooked the strap with the skewer and pulled it farther away still, until he was some distance from the body. Yue Qingyuan followed him.
"Shen Qingqiu?" Liu Qingge asked.
"The unclean energy is associated with the body, not the bag," Shen Qingqiu said. "Interesting."
The others waited as Shen Qingqiu carefully used the skewer and long chopsticks to open the bag--it was closed with a simple leather thong hooked over a wooden button.
A few items were revealed; a mostly empty canteen, a flat piece of wood with a charcoal drawing, and a few small, fine items which were clearly taken from the ruins. One was a carved jade medallion, which Shen Qingqiu examined carefully. He flipped it over with his chopsticks, and looked up at Yue Qingyuan. "You aren't going to believe this, but it's one of ours. Cang Qiong's, I mean."
"No, really. It even has Ling You's symbol." He pointed. "I think it really is a herding talisman. If I'm reading it right."
Yue Qingyuan blinked at it, baffled. "Well, that is a surprise. Can you turn it off? Or should we get Duan-shidi?"
Shen Qingqiu nodded. "Certainly. I think it's intended for normal use; nothing complicated about it." At Yue Qingyuan's nod, he used a bit of qi to disable to device, as easy as flipping a switch. There was immediate relief, as if a white noise machine had been turned off. He blinked. "Oh, did you feel that? We should--"
Yue Qingyuan nodded. "Check on Duan-shidi. With the letterbox, first."
They used talismans to put up a barrier array around the corpse and its still unknown unclean energy, then temporarily retreated to send a message to Duan Qingze and Ruan Qingruan. They got a reply almost at once.
"Ruan-shidi reports that Duan-shidi felt the change immediately," Yue Qingyuan conveyed. "The eagles were a little startled, but he's calming them down now. The dog has--" he squinted at the note. "What are 'the zoomies?'"
"It's running around like a mad thing," Qi Qingqi translated. "Not dangerous."
Mu Qingfang, accompanied by Liu Qingge, had begun studying the body through the security array; he now rejoined the others. "Well, he's in better shape than the others were," he reported. "He's still been dead for at least a month, though. It's difficult to tell, in the constant environment of a cave. It may have been longer."
"You can't see any injuries?"
Mu Qingfang shook his head. "None immediately visible; nothing as bad as the other two, at any rate. Though he's as emaciated as they were."
"Ruan-shidi says we have about a shichen until sunset," Yue Qingyuan began. "Let's leave the array up--"
He paused as the cultivators heard a faint scratching noise. It sounded like nothing so much as the tips of sewing needles, being dragged on the stone.
They automatically made a defensive formation, with enough space between them to swing a sword--and enough space for light to pool between them. The scratching noise paused, then came again.
Liu Qingge tilted his head. "I don't hear breathing."
Shang Qinghua's voice was a little shrill. "That is not reassuring, shidi!"
Liu Qingge shook his head. "I don't hear movement, either. Not clothes rustling, or fur, or any kind of movement. I don't think it's a monster making those noises."
"Oh." Shang Qinghua thought for a minute, then continued hopefully, "A possessed item? Or another illusion?"
"I was circulating my qi at the time, and I still heard it," Qi Qingqi said carefully. "It was a physical manifestation, not an illusion."
"Huh. There are spirit beings which can affect the physical world," Shen Qingqiu said. "They tend not to be physically powerful, though."
"I encountered a possessed patient once, who could throw things without touching them," Mu Qingfang said. "Not a cultivator. But it tired him out; he couldn't keep it up."
"That suggests, that whatever it is, it isn't bound to the body," Yue Qingyuan said. "The unclean energy could be lingering resentment, from his death. Let's return to camp, and be cautious."
The sun was already sinking when they returned to camp. Yue Qingyuan gave Duan Qingze and Ruan Qingruan a quick overview of their findings, while the others set up their security arrays in the fading light.
"All secure?" Yue Qingyuan asked as they returned. Receiving nods, he continued, "We'll keep watch in pairs, tonight. This appears to be a minor demon, but it's better to be cautious."
"How terrifying for the villagers to encounter it, though," Ruan Qingruan said sympathetically. "It really isn't something a non-cultivator should have to deal with."
When they had begun their return from the valley, Yue Qingyuan had sent a note via letterbox to reassure the two outside. Ruan Qingruan had started dinner at that time, but it wasn't quite ready yet. They used the time to wash up, and to speculate about what they'd found.
"So. What do we think happened to them?" Shang Qinghua asked, fingers laced around his cup of tea. He had bounced back from the spooky atmosphere of the ruins, and was now bright-eyed and curious. Shen Qingqiu had noticed, even in his past lives, that Shang Qinghua rarely took advantage of the opportunities for wuxia-style adventures. But he seemed to be enjoying it now.
"I think the nearby villages were looting the ruins," Qi Qingqi said. "Generations ago, I mean. And something scared them, and they stopped."
"Until the nuwu's grandson struck out on his own, and perhaps remembered some family secrets." Mu Qingfang spread his hands in bafflement. "Wouldn't they have stories, about the sect? Non-cultivators are usually so superstitious."
Qi Qingqi shrugged. "They may have heard of Xiling Xue's activities only second hand. The villages in this area would all be populated by new settlers. The towns nearby were pretty much wiped out, I remember hearing. The sect abducted whole settlements, to feed to the Demon Turtle."
"We've had no reports of problems from this area before, but that now seems suspicious," Yue Qingyuan said. "They wouldn't want to draw cultivators' attention here, if they were looting." He had stayed near Shen Qingqiu as they returned, and now sat close to him, radiating warmth as night fell. Shen Qingqiu resisted the impulse to lean into him; it was inelegant.
"That mound was built in a similar way to the houses around here," Shen Qingqiu said. "They may have constructed it specifically for that purpose. A waypoint. They could make one trip--it's quite a distance from any of the villages, for non-cultivators--then store the things in the mound."
"And sell off a piece at a time, so they wouldn't glut the market," Shang Qinghua agreed.
"Or draw too much attention," Mu Qingfang said. "They'd have trouble finding buyers, if people knew the items came from an unrighteous sect. It makes sense, to keep unused items in the mound. They wouldn't risk bringing something unclean home."
"Then something happened--maybe that energy demon, maybe something else--and they stopped. Stored what was left and forgot about it." Qi Qingqi tapped a thoughtful little tempo on her knee. "It must have been something really unsettling. They already had to go past all those bodies, to get to anything good."
Ruan Qingruan shivered. "How chilling."
Duan Qingze pet the little yellow dog, now leaning against his knee after a busy interval of running between the returned cultivators. "The nuwu's grandson must have urged the group to settle in that area--so far from the river--to look for the mound, and the map. And when they found it, there were enough items--the night pearl, remember, and the jar, and perhaps other things--to convince the others it was worth making the journey."
Shen Qingqiu had been comparing his sketches of the glowing lichen in the mound, with the rough maps he'd made in the tunnels. "Well, I think it's safe to conclude that this portion matched the valley. There may once have been an indication of the easiest path in, but it would be grown over, by now. And these others... I think it was a guide to the tunnels."
Yue Qingyuan looked over his shoulder and Shen Qingqiu tilted the maps towards him. "Would you indicate, on your map, the parts they knew about? It will be helpful, tomorrow, to know where they've already explored."
"So they came here--"
"With the ox cart, remember," Qi Qingqi said.
"With the cart, yes. Planning to pick up items to sell." Shang Qinghua shrugged. "Or maybe even resettle here. Like I said, it's a good spot."
"Whatever was in that jar--it could have been a sealed demon," Shen Qingqiu said thoughtfully. "I never did figure out what the symbols were, but the ‘cao' [ 艹 ] could be part of ‘xue’ [ 薛 ] in Xue sect. The 'hai' [ 亥 ] could be the 'hai' of 'frighten.' [ 骇 ].” He frowned. "Though I can't imagine why anyone would want to keep a fear demon."
"That would fit what we saw in the village, though," Liu Qingge suggested. "It started out causing nightmares, then when it was strong enough, it began making those scratches--"
Shang Qinghua shivered. "That must have been terrifying. All alone, in the isolated village, winter keeping them from leaving or getting help... and they hear the scritch-scritch of something trying to get in." His fingers twitched toward his notebook, but he didn't bring it out again.
"And saw nothing," Shen Qingqiu nodded. "Making the scratches was probably the limit of its abilities, at that point. That was why it didn't attack the animals; harassing the humans gave more sustenance. And when it grew strong enough from that--it possessed someone."
"And that would have convinced them it was gone, for awhile," Mu Qingfang sighed. "Because at first, it would be feeding on the new host. I can't fault them for trying to improve their circumstances--but this venture was incredibly foolhardy."
"Perhaps the nuwu encountered something unclean herself, and that's why the mound was abandoned. The night pearl would have fetched a good price."
"I wonder if they were trying to drive the creature away," Qi Qingqi mused, "By activating and boosting the herding artifact."
They looked again at the jade talisman. "They must have brought the talisman with them every time they came here, to repel any dangerous animals. Then when the creature began harassing them--"
"They may have tried to turn it up higher. With blood. Would that work on this particular talisman, Duan-shidi?"
"I think so. We usually use qi, of course, but a drop of blood will activate most talismans, if only briefly. So it worked--it worked on natural animals--but spirit animals are resistant," Duan Qingze said sadly. "The fear demon was entirely spirit-based, and immune."
"The Tundra Alligator was probably just looking for food; its prey must have fled as the villagers moved into the crater."
"I don't know if they were lucky or unlucky, that it didn't eat them."
Mu Qingfang shook his head sadly. "I think they may have been beyond help, by that time. The possessing creature had entirely subsumed one villager, and enthralled others."
"We'll need to go back in and exterminate it tomorrow," Yue Qingyuan agreed. "This is a remote area, but we can't chance some explorer bringing it into a nearby town."
"Let's plan for an early night, and an early start, then," Ruan Qingruan said brightly. "We may be able to return home before the month is out."