A large crowd of people was standing in the center of the village, expectantly looking down the road that led directly to the western exit of the city. Huang Ying was also there, but he stood at the very edge of the crowd, pushed to the side by the other people that rushed there to be present when Xing Tang returned. He had grown somewhat over the last years, but due to the fact that he was somewhat malnourished, he hadn't grown past 1.30 meters yet.
Before long, the sound of hooves hitting earth became audible in the city, a lone brown horse and rider arriving through the western entrance of the village. The one riding the horse was a young girl who seemed to be close to 18 years old, her black hair hung loosely down to her chest and she had a pair of blue eyes that contained an excited light. She had a slim figure and a somewhat round face, a dim golden robe draped around her body. While she was approaching the center of the village, the voice of Li Jun resounded within Huang Ying's mind.
"Hoh, she's already reached the Eighth Step of Mortality, seems like that Golden Dawn Academy has actually given her a resource or two."
Xing Tang reached the center of the village before Huang Ying got the chance to respond to Li Jun, the crowd quickly exploding with activity and voices as people rushed forward to greet Xing Tang. Her horse tossed and turned a little as it was surrounded by the crowd of people, but Xing Tang ignored it, her eyes scouring the crowd around her. Her eyes lit up when she spotted Huang Ying standing at the side, her body quickly hopping down from the horse and slipping through the crowd unhindered. She stopped in front of Huang Ying and flashed him a bright smile, heavily slapping his shoulders.
"Little Ying, just look at you! You've grown so much that I barely recognized you! But you're still a bit skinny so you've got to let Big Sister spoil you and buy you lots of fatty food today, it's your birthday after all. Oh, but don't tell Grampa Jong, he'll start nagging and grouching if he knows. Oh, where is Grampa Jong by the way, I can't see him anywhere."
Xing Tang was bustling with energy, her voice coming out as a constant stream as she continued to pat Huang Ying's shoulders. Huang Ying's birthday was indeed today, he was turning 10 and would thus be considered an adult in the village. Huang Ying hid the somewhat bitter smile that was about to surface on his face, casually shrugging his shoulders while giving an excuse.
"Gramps left the village two days ago to visit a friend in Azure Springs town, you just barely missed him."
Huang Ying didn't like lying to Xing Tang, but it was better than letting her see San Jongyu in his current state. Xing Tang had no reason to believe that Huang Ying was lying to her, so she fully accepted his words, giving him a deep look before pulling him into an embrace.
"I've missed you, Little Ying. Tell me, how did your awakening ceremony go, you've taken it, right?"
Huang Ying's smile twitched slightly when he heard her question, but thanks to the fact that he was currently buried in her embrace, Xing Tang failed to see it. He quickly acted like nothing, returning the embrace and enjoying the slight warmth while responding, once again lying.
"I've missed you too, Big Sis. And no, I haven't done the awakening ceremony yet, I don't really care much for cultivation so I haven't bothered with it."
Xing Tang once again fully believed Huang Ying's words, ending the hug after a short few moments. She pat Huang Ying's shoulders a few more times, brushing off the dust on his robe while smiling, not too bothered about his words.
"Alright, you just do as you please, Big Sis will be there to back you up should anything happen. But let's not talk about that right now, I only came back to celebrate your entrance into adulthood, I have to leave once the sun sets so we gotta be quick, otherwise I can't spoil you as I please. First thing on the list, we're getting you some new clothes, something that'll suit you more than those drab brown robes."
Xing Tang grabbed a hold of Huang Ying's hand and dragged him through the crowd without bothering waiting for a response from him. She stopped in front of her horse and whispered a few words to it, the horse neighing and then turning around, leaving the village and stopping outside it, grazing on the grass.
Just as the two were about to leave the village center, something wet hit Huang Ying square in the back of the head, jerking his head forward as another clump of mud was thrown at him and stained his hair. Xing Tang stopped dead in her tracks and turned her head, her eyes narrowing dangerously as she swept her eyes around the surroundings.
"Who threw that?! Huh, who did it, come on now, show yourself!"
In less than a second, Xing Tang had turned into a completely different person, she was even gripping Huang Ying's hand so hard that it was starting to hurt. The intensity of her glare made the crowd of people shrink back and lower their heads, no one daring to speak a word. Huang Ying pat Xing Tang on the shoulder to calm her down, flashing a casual smile.
"Big Sis, it's just some mud, don't worry about it. They're just jealous that I have a great Big Sis, no need to make such a big deal about it."
The last thing Huang Ying wanted was for Xing Tang to find out about the things that had happened in the last years, especially about the fact that he was unable to cultivate. Xing Tang slowly retracted her gaze, her eyes softening slightly as she looked at Huang Ying. She wiped away the mud that now stained the back of his head, speaking to him softly.
"Are they bullying you, Little Ying? You have to tell me if they are, I'll beat up anyone who is mean to you, so just point them out."
Huang Ying heard Li Jun chuckle in his mind, pleasantly surprised at the solution Xing Tang chose for the situation. Huang Ying ignored Li Jun's chuckle and comments, wiping away a few small pieces of mud and throwing them aside while assuring Xing Tang.
"It's fine, I promise you, they're just jealous because you're here right now."
Xing Tang looked deeply at Huang Ying but eventually chose to not pursue it further, giving the crowd of people behind them one last sweeping glare before leaving the area while pulling Huang Ying's hand. The two quickly left the center of the village and reached the shopping district, Xing Tang dragging Huang Ying directly to one of the tailoring shops and throwing open the doors.
"Show me all your fabrics!"
The somewhat older woman running the store was slightly startled by Xing Tang's loud shout, but quickly returned to normal when she saw who it was that entered the store. She put on a pleasant smile and did as Xing Tang asked, showing her the various fabrics that she had either made or acquired over the years. Xing Tang carefully looked through all the various fabrics, occasionally holding one close to Huang Ying and checking how it looked. After going through more than fifteen fabrics, she finally found one she was pleased with.
"This one, it'll be this one! I want four robes, two in his current size and two that are a bit larger so that he can use them as he grows."
The shopkeeper nodded her head and quickly took Huang Ying's measurements, starting on the robes immediately. She had many years of experience under her belt, something she showed by finishing the robes in a mere two hours. While the woman was finishing the robes, Xing Tang dragged Huang Ying out in the shopping street and moved from vendor to vendor, buying a bit of food from all of them.
They returned to the tailor after three hours, who was already ready with the robes and proudly showcased them by putting one on Huang Ying. The robe was sky-blue in color and went nicely with his azure hair, it also fit tightly around his body so he didn't have to worry about it slipping off. The fabric was light and airy, but durable enough that he could use it while walking through the forest, he had to admit that this was an excellent robe.
Xing Tang nodded her head at the robe, putting the other three in a leather pouch and tying it up tight before handing it to Huang Ying. She then pulled the shopkeeper aside and paid for the robes, making sure that Huang Ying didn't see or hear the price of the robes. Once the robes were paid for, she dragged Huang Ying back into the city and continued to wander around for a few more hours until the sun started to set.
The two ended their wandering in front of the western exit, where the horse was lazily waiting for his owner. Xing Tang stopped in front of the horse, looking deeply at Huang Ying while patting him one the shoulder once more.
"I have to leave now, the academy doesn't want me to be gone for too long, we've got a competition coming up that I'm taking part in. Little Ying, you don't need to worry about anyone or anything, you just need to do as you please and follow your heart's desires, don't let yourself be shackled down by anything."
Xing Tang looked deeply into Huang Ying's eyes as she gave him the advice, her expression more serious than it had ever been. She had been with Huang Ying all day, how could she not notice his overly mature eyes? They weren't the eyes of a child, nor were they the eyes of a person who had just turned 10, they were eyes that shouldn't be present on a person like Huang Ying. She didn't know what Huang Ying had gone through in the seven years that she had been gone, but it was clear that the time had changed him, forced him to grow up by placing a heavy burden on him. Huang Ying smiled calmly and assuringly, placing his hand on top of Xing Tang's.
"Don't worry, Big Sis, that's what I always do and it's what I'll keep doing."
Xing Tang continued to look deeply at Huang Ying but she didn't say anything, she would respect whatever choice he ended up making, only correcting him should he end up on a wicked path. She pat him on the shoulder one last time before turning around and mounting her horse, sharing one last look with Huang Ying before turning around and riding away from the village. Huang Ying felt a slight burning pain in his stomach as he watched her ride away, but the pain only pulsated for a few seconds before vanishing so he didn't really pay too much attention to it.
Huang Ying turned around and headed to San Jongyu's house, preparing some food and cleaning up after San Jongyu before leaving and returning to his own hut, eating the congee and then going to bed, Li Jun staying a bit more quiet than usual.
Huang Ying rose with the sun, the first light of dawn shining through his open door and waking him up. Huang Ying rose from his bedroll and stretched his body, putting on one of the blue robes that Xing Tang bought for him the previous day. He returned to the village and made a quick breakfast for himself and San Jongyu, just some bread and preserved vegetables.
He ate his breakfast as he ventured into the forest, unaware of a group of children sneakily following him. He mentally went through the various paths he had taken through the forests lately, picking one he hadn't used in quite a while, hoping that some of the herbs had grown back already. He didn't have too much luck within the first hour, but as he approached the second hour, the voice of Li Jun suddenly rang out within his mind.
"Head about half a kilometer to the west, there seems to be something interesting there."
Huang Ying was somewhat caught off guard by the fact that Li Jun spoke up, he rarely said anything while Huang Ying was gathering herbs. But he quickly followed Li Jun's directions, heading to the west and carefully examining the ground all the while. And thanks to the fact that he was carefully examining the ground, he managed to spot a few strands of grass that were different from the rest, they had blue veins and radiated a very faint energy. The voice of Li Jun echoed out in Huang Ying's mind again once he found the straws of grass, seemingly somewhat surprised.
"Hoh, so I wasn't wrong. That thing there is grass that has managed to absorb a bit of Qi over time, it's not the best item, but it's useful for younger cultivators so you should be able to earn a silver or ten if you bring it to the closest city and sell it."
Any item that had absorbed a bit of Qi was worth far more than normal items, but Huang Ying was still surprised when he heard the value of these six strands of grass. Ten silver was a large sum of money for him, it would secure food for him and San Jongyu for quite some time. But before Huang Ying even got the chance to feel excited, a voice from behind him poured cold water on his mood.
"See, see, Boss? I told you that following the kid would allow you to get your hands on something nice!"
Huang Ying quickly turned his head when he heard the voice, finally seeing the group of five children that had unknowingly followed him ever since he left the village. Standing at the center of the group was a black-haired and brown-eyed child who was an entire head taller than the rest, his body also radiated a faint energy, much like the grass Huang Ying was holding.
Huang Ying had heard about this youth, his name was Ooyan Ping and he was a little famous in the village for being close to reaching the First Step of Mortality, the first realm in cultivation. Ooyan Ping wasn't the one who had spoken, a brown-haired and green-eyed young boy standing excitedly next to him was the one who had spoken up.
He originally suggested that Ooyan Ping follow Huang Ying in hopes of getting his hands on whatever items Xing Tang surely gave him, but now it seemed like they got another bonus. Ooyan Ping looked at Huang Ying and the grass in his hand, his expression twisting slightly as he seemingly struggled with something. He eventually let out a deep sigh, his gaze remaining on the grass.
"Kid, I'm not comfortable with doing this, but my cultivation is too important. I won't make it too hard for you, just give me half of that grass, you can keep the rest for yourself."
Huang Ying's expression dimmed when he heard Ooyan Ping's demand. He wanted to ask what right Ooyan Ping had to ask for any of this grass, but he already knew the answer. Ooyan Ping was stronger than him, it was this strength that gave him the right. He could even be considered somewhat merciful, allowing Huang Ying to keep hold of half the grass. But after sweeping his gaze over the four other people behind Ooyan Ping, and seeing their greedy expressions, Huang Ying already knew what would happen, he also knew his position.
"Fuck it, just take the entire damn thing."
If he didn't give away everything now, those minions would just come back later and forcefully take it, Huang Ying was simply too weak to keep a hold of something like this. Ooyan Ping raised an eyebrow when he saw Huang Ying's actions, but casting a sideways glance at the people behind him he understood. He bent forward and picked up the strands of grass, casting one last look at Huang Ying before turning around and walking away, leaving behind a simple apology.
"You might not believe me, but I'm sorry."
The four other people followed Ooyan Ping, snickering quietly at Huang Ying, who remained standing in place with a somewhat downcast expression. After Ooyan Ping left the area, the slightly surprised voice of Li Jun rang out within Huang Ying's mind.
"Hoh, I thought you would at least try to defend yourself or protest, you handled that more calmly and weakly than I expected."
Huang Ying ignored Li Jun's somewhat biting remark, checking the ground around him closely one more time but sadly not finding anything. He let out a sigh and moved his vision away, continuing on the path he took earlier while muttering to himself.
"Gotta keep looking, otherwise I might not have enough money for the next few days."