The stark umber angles of the surrounding alps are slowly becoming limned with halos of hazy light. Yet again the darkness surrenders as sunrise closes in. A sleepless night, crammed with a year’s worth of agony and joy, is coming to an end.
“I should go too. I need to collect my sheep... And get some sleep.” Jian Cheng sighs, then stretches his lazy waist.
“I wouldn’t leave just yet, we seem to be surrounded by demonic beasts,” Kong Wang says.
Instantly Jian Cheng’s fearful eyes dart out into the false dawn. He’s been repeatedly warned of the Forbidden Forest. It was even in the name...
“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?” The boy's eyes shine through the gloom... And the doom he had been anticipating earlier. A strong demonic beast companion could instantly double a cultivator’s fighting power!
“Why not?” Kong Wang shrugs. “There are several fierce auras around, it’s just a matter of finding one that’s suitable for you and your particular 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.” Kong Wang cocka his head to one side for a moment then decisively strode off into the distance.
An incense stick of time later he returns. Alone. Although, he still seems highly pleased with himself for a reason Jian Cheng can’t fathom.
“He-he... Your luck is indeed good! I almost missed this little fellow, found him hiding behind several much bigger critters.”
The big teen holds his arm out, unfurling his fist into a palm then deposits the contents into the younger boy’s hand.
Staring at the squirming black bundle nestled in his cupped fingers, Jian Cheng’s spirits plummet. What’s the hell is that? A baby rat? Or a little mole of some sort?
“What other critters?” he can’t help but ask.
“Uh, a nine-star hundred-horn rhino and a eight-star flaming fire bear...”
Visions of riding a giant rhino into battle... Or forging weapons with the flame of his fierce bear flash across Jian Cheng’s eyes. “Ah, 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, Jian Cheng sighs resignedly. At least it is a little bit cute... And it can’t possibly cost much to feed...
A few breaths later, a scroll with a ring of strong hanzi, emitting spiritual power, appears in his big brother’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 the king of all rats.”
Rejoice, a ruler of tiny rodents! How imposing!
“It will take time though, this one is still a baby, or the likes of you could never forge a contract with it...Um, what else?”
Kong Wang yawns as he scratches his head. “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 any living things survive inside... So shall we begin?”
Jian Cheng turns his shaking head into a reluctant nod... then a sharp wince. Kong Wang has suddenly stabbed him in the leg with his own - former- dagger, before smearing the blood on the middle of the scroll. It was lucky the smaller boy is still holding the little beast and hasn’t flung it high into the air at the shock of getting attacked.... Smirking Kong Wang points the dagger at the younger boy’s palm, plainly targeting the helpless baby rat... Instinctively Jian Cheng turns away, seeking to protect the tiny creature. However. the big bully is insistent on getting his pound of flesh, or in this case drop of blood...
Stab! Ignoring the forlorn yelp of the tiny tyke Kong Wang drips the drop onto the contract. The paper promptly flares into a fiery circle that rises into the air before splitting into twin tongues of flame that shoot at Jian Cheng and the small animal alike. A bright flash bursts in his brain and an instant later his head hurts something fierce, causing him to close his eyes and pinch the bridge of his nose... It is fortunate the sun isn’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, his benefactor’s upbeat demeanour feels 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 awe-inspiring guardian of death,” a grumpy Jian Cheng blurts out between his elbows as his palms are covering his sore eyes.
“How domineering and eminently fitting,” Kong Wang replies with a straight face.
Hmm, Jian Cheng’s eyes narrow even more. Either senior brother doesn’t get sarcasm at all... Or is a complete master of it... Who would know? He’ll probably never find out...
The idea saddens him and he realises that he will sorely miss this meaty pie that fell from the sky...
The two stare at each other. Each can tell the other feels the same - parting is such sweet sorrow... They have both changed so much overnight, but now it is time to go. It has been a truly fortunate encounter for both of them with many benefits...
Kong Wang breaks the awkward silence and speaks 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 brothers now, no thanks necessary - now run along before the beasts come back.”
Having said his final piece, he makes a motion with his right arm and begins steadily rising into the air until he is 10 zhang high.
“Wait - what does this little rat actually eat?” Jian Cheng calls after him.
“What does a god eater rat eat?” Kong Wang’s ascent quivers. “ Ha-ha, I can’t wait to tell my father that one!”
Howling in delight, Kong Wang’s wobbling form is soon a shrinking blurry circle in the increasingly blue sky.
Jian Cheng faces the disappearing dot that was his friend and benefactor. He falls to his knees and kowtows three times. He’d been told not to, but a real man always repays favours and grudges alike.
A cry rings out in the shadowy interior of a gigantic high-vaulted hall: “All harken! The crown prince returns!”
If one were to see this elliptical dome from outside and above, its black square-sectioned roof clearly resembles 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 looks up, his red-eyes suddenly full of hope.
Bright sunlight floods into the gloomy room as the immense double-doors are flung open with a booming echo, and in strides none other than Kong Wang. His appearance is dishevelled from weeks of travel, but he is standing bolt upright and his aura is strong.
From out of the shadows on the left side of the hall, a black robed elder approaches. He has weasel eyes and a smarmy smile plastered on his narrow face. He also has mischief in mind. His wispy white beard shifts slightly in the draughty breeze of open doors as he closes in for the kill...
“Ke-ke, where did the little prince get lost this time?” he asks for the entire audience.
“No idea,” Kong Wang admits... Almost. “Um, I mean Elder Shan has no idea what actually happened.”
He doesn’t either. Kong Wang was the one telling this story, he reassures himself as he nods to a pair of stern guards to heave the mammoth doors closed again. And it is a fabulous story too; one that paints his humble self in a flattering light. After all, he and young Brother Cheng spent almost an hour concocting it. He’d promised to stick strictly to the script too – word-for-word. But which words were they again? There are so many to choose from… It couldn’t really matter could it? Besides he knows the gist of it, he’ll just have to begin at the beginning...
“I fought an ancient accountant,” he announces loudly and proudly. However, it isn’t the showstopper he was hoping for.
It instantly kills all conversations, but strangely, no-one seems impressed - a few elders even titter behind their hands.
A hundred puzzled faces turn towards him, “why?” they seem to say - yet don’t. Ugh, maybe the devil is in the details after all...
“Erm, I killed him too… Eventually…”
“Put up quite the fight did he?” Elder Shan asks over his shoulder, while still facing the gallery of seated elders. “ They often do at tax time…”
“Yes.” Naturally Kong Wang hears the familiar tinge of ridicule in Elder Shan’s jibe, but as usual he answers honestly. A wave of sniggers ripple around the hall.
“Enough!” His father stands up from his throne, a stormy aura crackles threateningly around him. Elder Shan wisely bows and backs away to resume his seat in the shadows again. His father turns 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?” Like a volcano the violent aura instantly erupts again.
“It was the one they called Yao Bao.”
“So that’s how it is? The Shining Phoenix Sect no longer put my Thundering Tortoise Clan in their eyes. Good. Good…” His father stares hard at the floor lost in thought. And while he keeps muttering “good” he doesn’t appear at all pleased to Kong Wang.
“I will flay him alive—wait… You said you killed him already?”
Now he appears pleased. Really pleased.
“Hear that?” he roars at the roof high above. “My good son killed an enemy elder, ha ha… A yuanying expert no less!”
His father’s rare public praise makes Kong Wang stand up straighter. The even rarer smile on his father’s face makes him feel warm inside. Suddenly the teen doesn’t want to ruin the mood by bringing up the stupid book… Yet Brother Cheng was so insistent... He basks in the glow a few minutes more, while explaining the battle in detail.
A few exaggerations later and his father is enthusiastically waving the accountant’s lightning sword around his head. He seems exceptionally taken with it. Every now and then he blasts bolts of lightning at Yao Bao’s smoking head, which is now rolling around on the floor... Or at any elder he deems isn’t paying enough attention to the tall tale... Or he shoots forked bolts at the ceiling to punctuate his sentences... Despite having little to no lightning affinity, he is starting to get the hang of it too. Soon the son begins to doubt he’ll ever get his trophy back. He doesn’t care though, seeing his beloved father in high spirits was worth a hundred such swords to him. Seeing Elder Shan and Uncle Li’s frazzled hair is worth 20 alone – 12 for each of them…
All good things come to an end however, and eventually, after glossing over details like how the avalanche was actually created, he’s reached the end of his tall tale.
“…He had some nice boots too, but I left them there...”
Leaning back on the throne, his father sighs contentedly, the energetic spark in his eyes dims a little and he shoves the lightning sword into his belt. Kong Wang isn’t getting that toy back any time soon that was for sure. Finally, the elders, who had been on tenterhooks, release their qi armour and begin breathing again...