Sitting on the ledge staring at the ground, Kong Wang aimlessly swings his feet, scuffing small troughs in the gravel below. He has something he wants to get off his chest.
"I don't know if you've noticed but I'm not very smart - Uncle Li says it's because when I was a baby I got dropped onto my head."
The teen's eyes track the skittering stones his constant kicking causes.
"Second uncle says, at that time I also landed on a large rock... Furthermore, 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..."
"Indeed. I can see that." Their casually cruel jokes aren't funny to Jian Cheng, who fumes on his friend's behalf. "However, my father maintains that having a good heart is much more important than how clever one is."
That earns 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." The corner of Kong Wang's mouth curls slightly upward.
"Seventeen!? That should be impossible right?" It actually should be, when you take 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... "
Ahh! Jian Cheng truly was 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’s seen how high the bar is actually set, it starts a fire within... Unbeknown to even himself, he adjusts his sights and begins aiming a lot higher than simply becoming a common soldier.
Beside him, Kong Wang has finished counting his blessings and become morose again, so he continues. “Yuanying is yuanying. At 17 it's a spectacular achievement and your sect is lucky to have gotten such a good seed." Jian Cheng is 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 brighten. "He-he, I could start a Thundering Tortoise Sect chapter here."
The idea clearly tickles his fancy.
"You could be the founder," he suddenly points at Jian Cheng, grinning like a loon.
Inwardly, the boy groans, apparently all his big talk is about to backfire.
"Sure," he says, steeling himself. After all this senior has turned his entire life around.
Kong Wang is oblivious to his reluctance. "I'll have to give you some things of course, sacred clan techniques and the like..."
Free celestial treasures? Benefits! Jian Cheng's ears perk up.
"Senior Wang, I would be honoured to found a Turtle Clan here," he gushes. "I already have two top prospects in mind as recruits."
"Naturally you're honoured. And it's The Thundering Tortoise Sect..." Kong Wang says in a suddenly commanding tone. Where has that come from?
"First though, I'll tell you a little of the history of our sect - you know about the heavenly beast kings, right?"
"Of course," The boy raises four consecutive fingers as he lists 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 flick open and regard him coldly. "Technically correct, but as usual the order is utterly wrong. Why is it our Tortoise ancestor is 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." He is up on his high horse and away.
"The attributes of our 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?
Kong Wang's eyes shone with an admixture of passion and confusion.
"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 proceeds to go into further depth and detail. In a flash an incense stick of time has flown by.
"Senior, that all sounds great." It actually does, awesome in fact. The tortoise traits suits Jian Cheng's personality to a tee too. "Sign me up. We seem to be a match made in the heavens!"
"Hmm..." Kong Wang is wary of being buttered up for benefits. "First, tell me about these top prospects of yours."
"Oh, sure.” he replies quickly. “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... An alchemists is well worth his weight in gold... Blacksmiths too are always useful to have around... He strokes the sparse hairs on his chin thoughtfully.
“It sounds like it could be the core of a strong sect... I'm intrigued... Are they loyal to you?"
"Utterly loyal!" Jian Cheng spits out with conviction.
"Okay, okay I believe you. You're a good friend I'm glad I met you." Kong Wang strokea his chin again. "What's your affinity by the way? You didn't say..."
"Um, I don't actually know..." Jian Cheng blinks and tilts his head to one side. "Back then the test didn't actually say..."
"Well, let's see shall we?"
Heavens above, did he have an actual affinity?
Aargh! Liu Tong and his two hangers-on are swaggering across the Misty Cloud Sect's outer courtyard. Thumbs arrogantly tucked into their belts, they meander their way towards the main pavillion... And Fatty Li Feng's exposed position.
Instantly, Li Feng bends his head down to hide his height - and cumbersome weight - then promptly ducks into the nearest alley. Not by accident because he knows it leads to the rear of the common room kitchens... After emerging there, he can cut across in front of the library... Then circle around behind the back of the forges towards his duties in the sect herb gardens...
The advantage Li Feng holds over his three tormentors is, he knows every nook and cranny of the sect like a snivelling rat does. He has thoroughly explored the whole outer sect searching for a secret way beyond the fortified stone walls into the inner sect. Unfortunately, as an outer sect disciple, entry is strictly forbidden, and enforced, so time and again his efforts were frustrated.
The inner court has the natural qi of the Misty Mountain's spirit vein augmented, by an extravagantly intricate and expensive qi gathering array formation. One that 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 Misty Cloud Manor, the interior compound of the core disciples and elders, one would find the quality of qi there to be four to five times as dense as normal! Could such benefits be so simple for the thousands of common outer sect cockroaches to acquire?
Poking his head out of the alley, Li Feng extends his weak spiritual sense to get a feel for the mood in the immediate area. Seeing, and sensing, the coast is clear, he scuttles past the kitchens, pausing momentarily to inhale the cooking aromas wafting on the breeze... Spicy cabbage and pork soup, he’ll be back in the evening for sure... Sighing he heads for the herb garden to report for work.
Shortly after the fateful qi testing ceremony, the Rusty Creek mayor and his council cronies funnelled village funds - rumoured to be more than 100 silvers - into purchasing 12 spirit stones for the five remaining "young heroes" who had qualified to attend the Misty Cloud Sect. The five who hadn’t been kidnapped against their will.
Li Feng and the little girl 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’s nepotistic fathers were also members of the elder council. Using the tightly coiled qi of the spirit stones as a springboard, the three cheats 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 were all far too accustomed to. Li Feng, of course, had long since set-off on his own, mere days after the testing ceremony.
Upon their arrival at the sect, the gruesome threesome had made Li Feng's life a misery. Whereas the Rusty Creek battles were always three against five, here they were three against one. You don’t need an abacus to calculate how the ratio is far worse... That is Fatty's excuse. Although he can't shake the sneaky suspicion that brother Cheng could somehow still triumph over those exact same odds...
While he feels a bit embarrassed about being bullied, he feels a lot worse about not finding Fen Ling. Her kidnapping regularly replays in his mind and he still bears a grudge against the unscrupulous sect behind the despicable deed.
Jian Cheng can't ever cultivate, so it naturally fell to Li Feng to seek justice for his little shi-mei.
Before that fateful incident, Fatty didn't care one way or the other what happened to him. He would happily potter around his grandfather's gardens for the remainder of his years... However, cruel fate has decreed he walk this bitter jianghu path instead. As the ancient idiom says, one may sit silently in their house, but the heavens are still plotting against them...
Sigh, he already vowed to Brother Cheng to shelter their little sister... He can only pray his shoulders are strong enough to carry both his and his brother's heavy loads...