A caravan of children made their way through a mountain pass, following a well-traveled paved road. The trees on either side of the road reached up into the skies, taller than four-story buildings and thicker than honey. Occasionally, a root would snake its way across the forest floor and reappear beneath the cobbles, forcing its way back up and reclaiming the land that was rightfully the forest’s.
It wasn’t an overly large gathering of people, but it wasn’t exactly small either. There were at least a hundred children between the ages of 10 and 15, herded by three women in their early twenties. One might think it would be like herding cats, but the group of children were very well behaved, almost too well behaved.
A youth near the back of the group was meditating diligently while walking, something that took a lot of concentration and practice. The Qi in the air surrounding the young child was sucked in as if filling a void or pouring into a crack on the seafloor. Had anybody been able to see the Qi with their naked eyes, they’d be surprised to see that the Qi came not only from the air, but also traveled along the earth where it was draining from nearby vegetation. The youth had not one cultivation spiral going on, but two! This youth was, of course, Feng Jiao.
After a five-month long trek across the country side, Feng Jiao and his friends were finally approaching the sect he’d pledged to when his martial spirit was awoken. After passing the sect-sponsored town the night before, the trees began to thicken and the road seemed to thin out. Titans of nature surrounded the caravan on all sides, adding to the eerie atmosphere alongside the near-silent children.
“Elder! I have news from the sect, stop the caravan!” A near-hysterical voice ripped through the silence, shortly followed by a disheveled woman rushing toward the group from the path ahead. Although he hadn’t seen the girl before, Feng Jiao could safely assume her identity as a disciple of the God Tree based on her attire, a robe that matched the one that he was wearing.
“Not here, wait a moment. Everybody take a short break; I have business to attend to.” Truthfully, Nufang Mudan didn’t really need to order the halt. Although they’d been steadily marching for five months now, all of the children were almost too-enthusiastic to take a break whenever offered. Especially so after their night in town, the first night of rest and relaxation they’d had in months and likely the last for a long time as well. Sect’s weren’t daycares after all. Each and every one of them knew they’d have to work hard every day just to keep up with their peers, let alone make themselves valuable to the sect.
The caravan ground to a halt and the tent appeared out of nowhere once more. ‘I’ve got to get myself one of those,’ Feng Jiao thought to himself. Setting up a tent every time really was too-tedious.
“Already? Impossible!” A shout was the first noise that escaped the confines of the tent’s walls. Apparently, whatever news the disciple had ferried over was not good news.
After a few minutes, Elder Nufang reappeared only to hiss at the two disciples who’d been sitting aside to join her in the tent. Her face was flustered and her brow furrowed. Feng Jiao felt a stomach ache on setting as he thought about the implications of an upset elder.
“What do you think they are talking about in there?” Duan Cao whispered to Feng Jiao, worried that if she asked too loudly, the elder’s wrath would be redirected onto her. It seemed that Jiao wasn’t the only one worried about the repercussions of the conversation happening in the tent.
“Don’t worry too much, Cao’er. If we need to know, they will tell us.” Naturally Wang Jin maintained her carefree attitude. Her philosophy was along the lines of ‘If you can’t change it, don’t bother with it’. Sometimes Jiao wondered if she was a fate freak, someone who would just drift through life and let what happened happen. Still, her words had merit and Feng Jiao responded with a head nod.
Moments later, the four women came out of the tent, the disheveled disciple bowed goodbye and sprinted back down the path toward the sect moving much faster than Feng Jiao thought humanly possible. ‘Must be some sort of movement technique.’ Elder Nufang looked upset and the other two disciples seemed to be likewise off-balance.
“I want the following people to come to my tent, now. Feng Jiao, Bai Fu, Feng Lou, Xin Lee, Li Jin, Liu Wau, Yang Yan…. ” The Elder summoned several people at once and they moved to comply.
The first thing Feng Jiao noticed when he entered the tent was that it was spacious. Not your typical ‘oh they arranged the furniture so nicely, look how much space we have for activities’ type of spacious, but, like, far-too-large spacious. The walls of the tent shined with formation markings and the floor was covered in cushions and blankets as well as several kotatsus. If he didn’t know better, Feng Jiao would think he walked into some sort of tea and tobacco lounge, not a tent that had been on the road for months.
‘So not only can the tent shrink and enlarge, but it has an internal spacial enhancement as well.’ Such an item would not be anywhere close to cheap and Feng Jiao began stressing about Elder Nufang’s backing. There was no way that a simple outer court elder would be awarded such a treasure. ‘I tried to force her to allow my friends in directly? That must have felt like several face-slaps to an elder with this much backing!’ To think that Feng Jiao had tried to force her hand and even threatened not to join the God Tree Grove without his two friends, his stomach ache intensified several levels.
“Sit, sit. Don’t worry, none of you are in trouble.” Nufang Mudan plopped herself onto a particular fluffy looking cushion before putting her face in her hands, obviously stressed out.
“Here is the deal. Some things have changed back at the sect and there has been a shift in management. I’m going to have to go ahead of the group to deal with the changes and it is likely that none of you will see me for a while. None of you should stress yourselves. So long as you can prove that you’re at the peak of Awakening, your spots as outer disciples will be safe. Beyond that, only luck will help you advance once we reach the sect. “
“Elder Nufang, what about those who weren’t at the peak of Awakening but promised slots in the outer court? Are you saying that they may have traveled all this way for nothing?” Feng Jiao couldn’t imagine how upset his friends would be after having traveled for so many months if they were turned away at the gate. He’d personally be upset on behalf of Duan Cao and Wang Jin, even if they weren’t. Elder Nufang had guaranteed him their spots in the sect.
“There are very few scenarios where that is the case, Disciple Feng, and they will be handled on a case by case basis, I am sure. If there is nothing else, I’ll need to head out soon so you may all take your leave. Except for you, Feng Jiao. Stay behind, we need to chat.”
The other kids filtered out of the tent one at a time, leaving behind only Feng Jiao and Bai Fu, who squeezed his shoulder reassuringly before departing as well. The entire time the tent emptied, Feng Jiao stared at the floor between his feet and did his best to rein in his temper. It wouldn’t do well for him to get angry at an Elder before he was even officially admitted into the sect and it wouldn’t make a difference even if he did get angry.
“Little Bird, Little Jiao. I know that you’re upset, but please try to calm down so that we can talk.” Nufang Mudan walked up to Jiao and put her hands on his shoulders while he stared at the floor. She’d been working with children for a long time and dealt with her fair share of temper tantrums, but she found it cute the way Feng Jiao was trying his hardest to suppress his anger.
“I need you to understand that this isn’t what I wanted. When I told you that I would get both of your servants admitted to the sect alongside you, I meant it. The changes going on at the sect right now, though, are out of my hands. It is very likely that I won’t be an elder for too much longer, actually.
“But your friends won’t be turned around. Whereas they won’t be admitted directly as Outer Sect Disciples, they also won’t be turned away. Just like all of the other hundred children behind you, and all of the children who are allowed to pledge the God Tree before they finish their awakening, they will be accepted as Nominal Disciples. I won’t lie to you and say it will be easy, but they will at least be given the same chances everyone else is.
“That’s not why I asked you to stay behind though.” Nufang Mudan almost whispered the last sentence. After finally looking up, Feng Jiao saw the frustration and pain in the Elder’s eyes. Obviously, whatever was happening at the sect was affecting her in a far more profound manner than just a few disciples being upset about their lost credentials.
“What is it, Elder Nufang?”
“It’s about your dual martial spirits. I want to ask you to try and keep the fact that you have two different spirits a secret, at least until I can get back into a position of power from where I can protect you. I told you before that I’d never heard of someone who awoke two different martial spirits, and that was true. I don’t know what would happen to you if word got out about them, any more than it already is after your Awakening that is.”
His first impulse was to reject her request, telling her to take her words and shove them. That was Feng Jiao being childish, however, and he did not say that out loud. After giving it some thought however, Feng Jiao realized that he really wouldn’t be able to protect himself. If somebody got it into their head to capture him and experiment on him, to try and figure out how and why he ended up with two martial spirits, he would be doomed. He hadn’t given much thought to the possibility before, but after it was brought up, he realized that oddities were often dissected.
“I can do that, Elder Nufang.”
“Good, you’ll find out more about the sect during your orientation. I’ve got to go though, so stay safe and keep your head down.” The two of them got up and left the tent, after which the tent rapidly shrunk itself before flying into Elder Nufang’s palm. She said one last goodbye and gave her two attendants instructions before turning and running down the path toward the sect. Her footwork was simple yet profound and before he realized it, she’d disappeared from Feng Jiao’s eyesight. The speed of a cultivator was truly amazing.