Sunrise was approaching, a long night, crammed with a year's worth of events, had almost passed.
"I should go too. I need to collect my sheep." Jian Cheng sighed.
"I wouldn't leave just yet, we seem to be surrounded by demonic beasts," Kong Wang said.
Instantly Jian Cheng's fearful eyes darted out into the false dawn.
"Don't worry, I'll scare them off in a minute... Though you should probably keep one for a contract beast companion."
"A contract beast?" Jian Cheng's eyes shone in the gloom. A strong demonic beast companion could instantly double a cultivator's fighting power.
"Why not? There are several fierce auras around, it's just a matter of finding one that's suitable for you and your circumstances..."
"I see. In that case, I'll leave it entirely up to big brother Wang to select what's best."
"Wait here a minute then, I will return shortly."
Ten minutes later Kong Wang returned. Alone. Although, he still seemed highly pleased with himself for some obscure reason....
"He he. Your luck is indeed good! I almost missed this little fellow, found him hiding behind several much bigger critters," he said, holding his arm forth and turning his fist into a palm.
Staring at the squirming black bundle nestled in his hand, Jian Cheng's spirits plummeted. What's the hell was it? A baby rat? Or a little mole of some sort?
"What other critters?" he couldn't help but ask.
"Uh, a ninqi tier nine hundred horn rhino and a tier eight flaming fire bear..."
Visions of riding a giant rhino into battle... Or forging weapons with the flame of his fierce bear flashed across his eyes. "I suppose those two are long gone now?"
"Absolutely , little brother can rest easy!! The entire area is clear for several li - you'll be completely safe."
Staring glumly at the furry bundle currently curled up in his palm like a cooked prawn, Jiang Cheng sighed resignedly. At least it was a little bit cute... And couldn't cost much to feed...
A scroll with a ring of strong hanzi, emitting spiritual power, appeared in Kong Wong's hand.
"This is a beast contract talisman, I always carry a couple around."
"A god eater rat is... Or in the case of this wee one, can in the distant future become a powerful being, basically a king amongst rats."
Rejoice, a king amongst tiny rodents!
"It will take time though, this one is still a baby, or the likes of you could never forge a contract with it... What else? Oh yes, the god eater rat cultivates rather uniquely by firstly gorging himself then sleeping it off for long stretches of time - luckily your spatial belt is of the superior life class and can let living things survive inside... So shall we begin"
Jian Cheng nodded... then winced. Kong Wang had suddenly stabbed him in the leg with his own - former - dagger, before smearing the blood on the middle of the scroll. It was lucky Jiian Cheng was still holding it and hadn't flung it into the air at the shock of getting attacked.... Kong Wang pointed the dagger at Jian Cheng's palm, plainly targeting the helpless baby rat.. Instinctively Jian Cheng turned away, trying to protect the tiny creature,. However. Kong Wang was insistent on getting his pound of flesh or in this case drop of blood.
He ignored the forlorn yelp of the tiny tyke and dripped the drop onto the contract. The paper promptly flared into a fiery circle. It rose into the air before splitting into two tongues of flame that shot at Jian Cheng and the small animal alike. A bright flash burst in his brain and an instant later his head hurt something fierce... It was fortunate the sun wasn't fully up yet, because he truly couldn't face it...
"Well done, a successful bonding. You'll be woozy for a while, but it will wear off shortly."
In the throbbing haze of his headache, Kong Wang's upbeat demeanour felt demeaning...
"Remember this is a contract beast not a pet. You've bonded in blood, so what ails him will ail you to some extent too."
"Don't worry it's not forever,a few years at most,. Your contract can even be broken if either party exceeds the other by too many tiers -- have you thought of a suitable name?"
"Yes, Yama - named after the awesome guardian of death," Jian Cheng said sarcastically.
"How domineering and eminently fitting," Kong Wang replied with a straight face.
Hmm, Jian Cheng's eyes narrowed, either senior brother didn't get sarcasm at all... Or was a complete master of it... Who would know? He'd probably never find out... The idea saddened him and he realised that he would sorely miss this pie that fell from the sky...
The two stared at each other. Each could tell the other felt the same - parting was such sweet sorrow... They had both changed so much overnight, but now it was time to go. It had been a truly fortunate encounter for both of them with many benefits...
Kong Wang broke the awkward silence and spoke first. "Little Brother Cheng, big brother is leaving, but fear not, we will surely meet again in the future."
"Senior brother. travel safe and thank you so much."
"He-he, we're friends, no thanks necessary - now run along before the beasts come back."
Having said his final piece, he made a motion, then rose steadily into the air until he was 30 chi high.
"Wait - what does this little rat actualy eat?" Jian Cheng called after him.
"What does a god eater rat eat? Ha-ha, I can't wait to tell my father that one!"
Howling in delight Kong Wang soon became a shrinking circle of blur in the blue sky.
Jian Cheng faced the disappearing dot that was his friend and benefactor. He fell to his knees and kowtowed three times. He'd been told not to, but a real man repaid favours and grudges alike.
A cry rang out in the gloomy interior of a large elliptical dome: "The prince returns!'
If one were to see this dome from the outside and above, its square-sectioned roof clearly resembled a monstrous tortoise shell: The main hall of the Thundering Tortoise Sect.
Seated on a shell-shaped jade throne, a hulking figure with pensive features looked up, his red-eyes suddenly full of hope.
Through the double doors strode none other than Kong Wang. His appearance was dishevelled from weeks of travel, but he was standing bolt upright and his aura was strong.
In front of him, a black robed elder approached. He had weasel eyes and a smarmy smile plastered on his narrow face, He also had mischief in mind. His wispy white beard shifted slightly in the draughty breeze of open doors as closed in for the kill...
“Ke-ke, where did the little prince get lost this time?” he asked for the entire audience.
“No idea,” he admitted... Almost. “Um, I mean Elder Shan has no idea what actually happened.”
He didn’t either. Kong Wang was the one telling this story, he reassured himself as he nodded to a pair of guards to heave open the doors. And it was a good story too; one that painted his humble self in a flattering light. After all he and little brother Cheng had spent almost an hour concocting it. He’d promised to stick to the script too – word for word. But which words were they again? There were so many to choose from… It couldn’t really matter could it? Besides he knew the gist of it, he’d just begin at the beginning.
“I fought an old accountant,” he announced proudly. However, it wasn’t the showstopper he’d expected. Strangely, no-one seemed that impressed; a few elders even sniggered behind their hands.
A hundred puzzled faces turned towards him, “why?” they seemed to say - yet didn’t. Ugh, maybe the devil was in the details after all.
“Erm, I killed him too… Eventually…”
“Put up quite the fight did he? They often do at tax time…”
“Yes.” Kong Wang heard the tinge of ridicule in Elder Shan's jibe, but as usual answered honestly. A wave of tittering sniggers rippled around the hall.
“Enough!” his father stood up from his throne, a stormy aura crackled threateningly around him. Elder Shan wisely bowed and backed away to his seat again. His father turned towards him with a soft sigh.
“Why on earth did you kill an accountant son?”
“It wasn’t on earth and he attacked me first.”
“What! Who dares?” The violent aura instantly erupted again.
“It was the one they called Yao Bao.”
“So the Shining Phoenix Sect no longer put my Thundering Tortoise Clan in their eyes. Good. Good…” His father stared at the floor lost in thought. And while he kept mumbling “good” he didn’t appear at all pleased to Kong Wang.
“I will flay him alive—wait… You said you killed him already?”
Now he appeared pleased. Really pleased.
“Hear that?” he roared. “My good son killed an enemy elder, ha ha… A yuanying expert no less!”
His father’s rare public praise made Kong Wang stand up straighter. The even rarer smile on his father’s face made him feel warm inside. Suddenly Kong Wang didn’t want to ruin the mood by bringing up the stupid book… But brother Cheng had been so insistent... He basked in the glow a few minutes more, while explaining about the battle.
His father ended up enthusiastically waving around the accountant's lightning sword around his head. He seemed exceptionally taken with it, and would occasionally blast bolts of lightning at Yao Bao’s decapitated head rolling around on the floor or any elder that he deemed wasn’t listening closely enough. Despite having little lightning affinity he was starting to get the hang of it too. Kong Wang doubted he’d ever get his trophy back. He didn’t care though, seeing his father in high spirits was worth a hundred such swords to him. Seeing elder Shan and uncle Li's frazzled hair was worth twenty alone – twelve for each of them…
Al good things come to an end however and eventually, after glossing over details like how the avalanche was created, he’d reached the end of his tall tale.
“…He had some nice boots too, but I left them there...”
His father sighed contentedly, the spark in his eyes dimmed somewhat and he shoved the lightning sword into his belt. Kong Wang wasn't getting that toy back that's for sure. Finally, the elders, who’d been on tenterhooks, released their qi armour and began breathing again.