Liu Tong and his two hangers-on were swaggering across the Misty Cloud Sect's outer courtyard. Thumbs tucked into their belts, they meandered their way towards the main pavillion.
Immediately Fatty Li Feng bent his head down to hide his height - and cumbersome weight - then promptly ducked into the nearest alley. It led to the rear of the common room kitchens, after emerging there he could cut across in front of the library and circle around behind the back of the forges towards his duties in the sect herb gardens...
The advantage he held over his three tormentors was, he knew every nook and cranny of the sect like the back of the hand. He'd thoroughly explored the whole outer sect searching for a secret way beyond the fortified stone walls into the inner sect. But as an outer sect disciple entry was strictly forbidden, so time and again he'd been frustrated in his efforts.
The inner court had the natural qi of the Misty Mountain's spirit vein augmented by an extravagantly intricate and expensive qi gathering formation that had required a guest elder at yuanying level to assemble. Therefore the qi levels inside the inner court were thrice those of the outer court. Furthermore, if one were to enter the interior compound of the core disciples and elders one would find the quality of qi there to be four times as dense as normal! Could such benefits be so simple for the hundreds of common outer sect cockroaches to acquire?
Poking his head out of the alley, Li Feng extended his weak spiritual sense to get a feel for the mood in the immediate area. Seeing and sensing the coast was clear he scuttled past the kitchens, pausing to inhale the cooking smells wafting on the breeze. Spicy cabbage and pork soup, he'd be back in the evening for sure... sighing he headed for the herb garden to report for work.
Shortly after the fateful qi testing ceremony, the Rusty Creek mayor had funnelled village funds - rumoured to be more than a hundred silvers - into purchasing 12 spirit stones for the five remaining "young heroes" who had qualified to attend the Misty Cloud Sect.
Li Feng and Xiao Ma received one each. The main benefactors were of course the mayor's son Liu Tong and his two followers, Li Hao and Zhao Wong, who also had nepotistic fathers on the elder council. Using the tightly coiled qi of the spirit stones as a springboard, the three had all crossed the tier three threshold within a few months. At that time, a carriage was commissioned, again with village funds, to deliver the three feted heroes - and begrudgingly little Xiao Ma - to the sect in style they had become all too accustomed to. Li Feng had long since set-off walking, months before a mere few days after the testing ceremony.
Upon arrival at the sect, the gruesome threesome had made Li Feng's life a misery. Whereas the Rusty Creek battles had been three against five, here they were three against one. You didn't need an abacus to calculate that the ratio was far worse... That was Fatty's excuse. Although he couldn't shake the sneaky suspicion that brother Cheng would somehow still triumph over those exact same odds ...
While he felt a bit embarrassed about that, he felt a lot worse about not having found Fen Ling. Her kidnapping regularly replayed in his mind and he bore a grudge against the unscrupulous sect behind the despicable deed.
Jian Cheng couldn't cultivate so it naturally fell to Li Feng to seek justice for his shi-mei.
Before the fateful incident, Fatty didn't care one way or the other what happened to him. He would've been happy pottering around his grandfather's gardens for the remainder of his years... However, cruel fate had decreed he walk this bitter path instead. He vowed to shoulder the responsibility of sheltering their little shi-mei... He only prayed his shoulders would be strong enough to carry both brother's loads...
Kong Wang stared at his feet appearing a little glum.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I’m not very smart - Uncle Li said it’s because when I was a baby I got dropped onto my head. Furthermore, second uncle said at that time I also landed on a large rock... Third uncle claims I then rolled under the wheels of a passing chariot...
"We can all laugh about it now, but as young friend Cheng can see, my upbringing has been somewhat unfortunate...”
“No. I can indeed see that.” Their casually cruel jokes weren’t funny to Jian Cheng, who fumed on his friend’s behalf. “However, my father maintains that having a good heart is much more important than how clever one is.”
That earned a shy smile. “My father says the same thing.”
“Then be a filial son and trust your father’s judgement - you are so far from being a failure it’s not funny. Look at you! You’re a yuanying at how young?”
Seventeen!? That should be impossible right? It actually was, when you took the time to think about it...“Were you born cultivating?”
“Um, sort of…”
“Wait, you actually began cultivating at birth?”
“As a baby, it couldn’t be helped because I carry an immortal beast bloodline. Moreover, there were many trained nannies and tutors… I was in zhuji before I even knew what cultivating was… "
Jian Cheng truly had been a frog in a well. Noble beast bloodlines and a 10 to 12 year head start, not to mention the countless resources thrown his way... It was literally the difference between the heavens and the earth.
However, now he’d seen how high the bar was actually set, it started a fire within. Unbeknownst to even himself, he adjusted his sights and began aiming a lot higher than just becoming a common soldier.
Beside him, Kong Wang had finished counting his blessings and become gloomy again.
“Yuanying is yuanying. At seventeen it’s a spectacular achievement and your sect is lucky to have gotten such a good seed.” Jian Cheng was adamant.
“Also, you performed tricky qi hole surgery and secured a lifelong ally for the clan. You could be considered to have conquered a whole new territory…”
“A whole new territory…” Kong Wang’s eyes were bright. “He-he, I could start a Thundering Tortoise Sect chapter here.”
The idea clearly tickled his fancy.
“You could be the founder,” he pointed at Jian Cheng, grinning like a loon.
Jian Cheng inwardly groaned, apparently all his big talk was about to backfire big time.
“Sure,” he said, steeling himself. After all this senior had turned his life around.
Kong Wang was oblivious to his reluctance. “I’d have to give you some things of course, sacred clan techniques and the like…”
Free celestial treasures? Benefits! Jian Cheng’s ears perked up.
“Senior Wang, I would be honoured to found a Turtle Clan here,” he gushed. “I already have two top prospects in mind as recruits.”
“Naturally you're honoured. And it’s The Thundering Tortoise Sect… First though, I’ll tell you a little of the history of our sect," he said.
“You know of the heavenly beast kings, right?”
“Of course,” Jian Cheng raised four different fingers as he listed them. "The Azure Dragon of the East, the Vermilion Phoenix of the South; the White Tiger of the West… and the Black?... Tortoise… of the North.”
Kong Wang's eyes flicked open and regarded him coldly. “Technically correct but as usual the order is utterly wrong. Why is our Tortoise always the last one mentioned?”
“Your Tortoise is related to one of the four divine beast kings? Wow!”
“Yes, wow. We’re direct descendants of one of the four - though the least heralded and flashy. The attributes of the tortoise are a stout heart, soul strength, and defensive solidity, wisdom for insights, karmic balance and endurance. Also the tortoise is practical, patient and a planner... What else?
"Oh, our cultivation method is super solid, but can be slow requiring a lot more resources than other methods. Still, with our innate wisdom, comprehension is much improved, leading to a lot less bottlenecks at the higher levels.”
He then proceeded to go into further depth and detail. In a flash an incense stick of time had flown by.
"Senior, that all sounds great." It actually did. The tortoise suited Jian Cheng's personality to a tee too. "Sign me up. We seem to be a match made in the heavens!"
"Hmm," Kong Wang was wary of being buttered up. "First tell me about these top prospects of yours.”
“They’re the absolute best of the best. One has a rare twin wind-lightning affinity and the other is a giant of a man, an aspiring alchemist of the fire affinity of course. I myself am also a blacksmith…"
“Hmm, no waters, however wind-lightning is indeed a nice combination. Alchemists are worth their weight in gold too. Blacksmiths are also useful to have. It sounds like it could be the core of a strong sect… I’m intrigued… Are they loyal to you?”
“Utterly loyal!” Jian Cheng spat out with conviction.
"Okay, okay I believe you. You're a good friend I'm glad I met you. What's your affinity by the way? You didn't say..."
"Um, I don't know... Back then the test didn't get that far."
"Well let's see shall we?"