Han Fang’s hammer swung, and thunder boomed.
In response, the wind screamed.
Sand and grit stung his skin, ripped at his clothes, and forced him to close his eyes. He planted his feet, gritted his teeth, and anchored himself to earth with his own command of the wind, and still he felt his feet leave the ground, the sheer force of the screaming column of whirling air hurling him backwards. He hit the ground hard enough to crater earth and bounced twice, only then managing to dig his fingers into the earth and stop his backward tumble.
The winds died, and he heard a curse as he rolled groggily to his feet, head ringing from the impact.
“I overpowered it again. I’m so sorry, Fang,” Jian, his liege, his brother, hurried to offer him a hand, streams of qi still fluttering in a lazy spiral around him. Han Fang put on an easy grin, accepting his help to get up.
But as he shook off the dizziness of being spun end over end in mid air and the pain of the impact, he stewed. With Jian reaching appraisal, the second stage of the third realm, he could not even properly spar with him anymore. The Scything WInd Retribution technique he was trying to master was just the latest thing to make it obvious. He was falling behind.
Somehow, the concern in Jian’s eyes just made it worse. ‘Break?’ he signed, and Han Fang appreciated the show of solidarity.
‘I can continue,’ he signed back. ‘Just a few bruises.’ It wasn’t a lie exactly, even if he could feel his entire back beginning to bruise.
But his brother's shrewd eyes wouldn’t miss something like that. “Well, I need a break,” he huffed, carefully clapping Fang on the shoulder. “Let’s take a breather at the benches.”
Letting out a raspy sigh, Han Fang nodded. There was no use arguing with Jian when he was like this. He gritted his teeth in discomfort as he bent down to scoop his hammer from the ground where he had dropped it. The worn grip was a familiar and comforting weight in his hand, but it did little to quell his bleak thoughts. This year was shaping up to be just as absurd as the last.
Lu Feng, Sun Liling’s vassal and fellow yearmate, could match Jian and had done so successfully once or twice over the course of the year. Word was, one of his people was close to breaking through to the third realm.
Cai’s faction was as strong as ever. Su Ling remained a hermit, but since the attack from Lu Feng’s faction, she had been cooperating closely with them. Everyone knew she was churning out elixirs and pills for Cai’s group, and the only saving grace was that she would probably enter the production tournament rather than the combat. There were at least a half dozen people in that faction who could fight him evenly, at least three of which were brushing up against the edge of the third realm.
That said nothing of Gan Guangli himself. Gan had managed to claw his way all the way to the foundation stage of bronze despite the limits of the Outer Sect. He seemed to hold no grudge with Fang over the preliminary that had seen him exit last year’s New Year’s Tournament, but all the same, Fang did not relish the possibility of facing him in this tournament.
The new Bai girl had broken through just a few weeks ago, and she acted like some vicious ghost from an old story, stalking the crossroads and challenging anyone not aligned with Cai who crossed her path. She’d broken Fan Yu’s elbow just last month. And every time she prowled, she had some devilish new talisman provided by that boy she had picked up early in the year.
At least the Wen girl had been withdrawn after the attack on the Outer Sect from the enemies below. That was one less green to contend with, leaving only … three confirmed green disciples, not including Han Jian, and potentially another four if Han Fang was really unlucky.
He was beginning to despair for his chances.
“Hey, you’re going to make it,” Han Jian encouraged from beside him, stirring him from his thoughts. They had both sat down on the benches at the edge of the training field. “You made it back to peak, right?”
‘Don’t trouble yourself over me,’ Fang signed absently. Jian needed to focus on his own growth. The expectations of the Han family were on his back. While last year could be excused, this one could not. ‘I’m sorry I can’t be of more help.’
“You’re plenty of help,” Jian chuckled, resting his hands on his knees. Jian was silent for a time before he spoke up abruptly. “She didn’t even tell me she was going home.”
Han Fang cocked his head to the side and signed a question mark with his right hand. What was Jian talking about?
“Xiulan,” Jian sighed, and Han Fang felt a twinge of dislike.
He had never truly bonded with the girl; her dismissive attitude toward him grated. But the way things had gone last year had deepened that feeling into a strong dislike. He wished that Jian would stop thinking about her. He didn’t understand why Fan Yu was still so besotted with her.
“Not even a letter,” Jian chuckled sadly. “I guess that’s to be expected. Point is, Fang, I need you more than ever. I don’t exactly have many friends left.”
Han Fang’s burgeoning scowl softened, and he clapped his brother on the shoulder. He wouldn’t fail again. He had to be able to support him. ‘Don’t worry then. I won’t be left behind.’
“Heh, I can always count on you,” Jian said lightly. “Actually, I was going to tell you later, but I got the response back for my last letter to Father.”
Han Fang blinked at the sudden change in subject. ‘Oh, good news?’ he signed.
“You could say that,” Han Jian said, smiling. It was good to see that expression. “You’re going to be getting a spirit beast. They won’t be part of the main line like Heijin, but Father promised to negotiate for someone agreable…”
He trailed off at the look of shock on Han Fang’s face. Had Jian really done that? Fang was only an adopted member of the clan; asking for a spirit beast wasn’t a light thing to request. He could have gotten a new domain weapon or a cache of family elixirs or…
Han Fang squeezed his eyes shut and signed a silent but emphatic ‘thank you.’
“It’s nothing,” he heard Han Jian say gently. “You’re family, Fang. Thanks for sticking with me.”
He could only nod.
“But hey,” Han Jian said, lightly punching him in the shoulder. “You’re gonna have to get to third realm pronto if you want to bind them when they get here.”
‘I won’t fail,’ Han Fang signed. He would live up to his brother’s expectations.
That night, Han Fang set out. The wilderness around the Sect was peaceful these days, albeit it was the peace of fearful anticipation. Beasts hid in their burrows, and spirits kept their voices down, for high above in the clear and cloudless night sky, the titanic coils of a great dragon hung, silent and ominous.
Despite the peace, the air was thick with the qi of storms - the rumble of thunder, the crackle of lightning, the howl of the wind. Ambition, innovation, and freedom. Some would think that one such as he was ill suited to those elements. They would think that one who followed could not master the crack of thunder, but Han Fang knew that was wrong.
For Han Jian, he would scale the highest mountain of the Wall. He would face any enemy, no matter how overwhelming. For his foolish, too kind brother, he would do anything. How could he let something as petty as his own limits stand in the path of that?
So, it was without reservation that he strode to the top of the hill torn by the winds of spirits driven down from the upper air and sat down to meditate.
When the sun rose, thunder crashed, and he was born anew.
Han Fang breathed out, and thunder rolled out.
He could feel the frisson of power running through the air, the charge in every invisible droplet of moisture, and the coolness of the wisps of stormcloud gathering about his shoulders like a cloak. He could feel the movements of every twig and blade of grass, every crawling thing in the dirt, and every bird in the sky by the minute current of heavenly energy that coursed through all living things. And if he pulsed his qi in just the right way, he could disrupt it.
A month after his breakthrough, he had finally mastered the first stage of an art of the third realm. With the Echoing Heavenly Current technique, he could once again call himself worthy to be Han Jian’s eyes on the shadows. He would not be helpless or caught unawares again.
It had taken nearly nine months of his second year at the Argent Peak Sect, but he was finally keeping up with Han Jian again.
Han Fang felt something on the edge of his senses then. As if summoned by his thoughts, Han Jian was here, walking up the winding path to the training ground. He was not alone. He could feel Fan Yu as well, stolid and solid but diminished from how he had been last year. With the clarity of his new arts, that was all the more clear.
“... try to focus on the positives, Yu. You actually made some progress on your latest breakthrough attempt, right?”
“Barely.” The other boy's voice was bitter, but he had lost the combative bluster that would have once marked such words. “What is the point? My failures have already lost me everything. Father is not even going to send one of my elder brothers to observe the tournament.”
In the field far above them, Han Fang grimaced. The news of his engagement with Xiulan being broken had shattered what little remained of Fan Yu’s determination. His family’s growing coldness in their correspondence had done the rest.
Han Fang felt for Fan Yu, no matter how abrasive he was. His situation struck far too close to Han Fang’s own fears that he would fail to live up to the honor he had been given, that he would lose the name he had been gifted, and that he would be left behind by Han Jian. Han Fang knew all too well that the great majority of the Han family regarded his adoption with irritation.
There were only so many resources to go around after all. Each pill, elixir, and stone he received was one which another scion could not.
“That’s not true, Yu. It’s not like reaching third realm at sixteen or seventeen isn’t still impressive,” Han Jian comforted him. “And you’ll get there. You’ll have to work for it, but -”
“Don’t coddle me, Jian,” Yu said. “Your kind words only make things worse. I have built my own failure.”
“And you can build your own success,” Jian insisted. “Yu, I won’t baby you; you’ve always had trouble with getting discouraged easily. But I know you can come back from this. It’s not like you’re being cast out from your clan.”
Fan Yu grunted. “It seems that even you can run out of soft words, Jian. I will leave you to your cousin. I should… cultivate.”
Han Fang withdrew his senses back to the field. He knew that his breakthrough had only made Fan Yu feel worse; the other boy had begun to openly avoid him. However, he could not regret his own success.
He opened his eyes and blinked away the spots that burst out in his vision. It was still jarring to go back to seeing with only his physical eyes. He would have to continue working on his technique. Otherwise, that would be an unacceptable liability.
“It’s rude to listen in like that, Fang,” Han Jian said as he entered the training ground.
Han Fang dipped his head in deference, but if Jian had wanted to keep him out, he would have screened the conversation. Opening his ears to listen to what could be heard was just one of his duties. With his right hand, he signed to Jian. He received another letter?
‘Yes,’ Jian signed back. “I don’t want to think ill of the Fan, but it seems his father was more invested in the Gu alliance than I thought. It looks like he’s going to continue negotiating for one of his other sons or nephews.”
Han Fang grimaced. It was one thing for your betrothal to be broken, but another for it to outright be given to a close relative. No wonder Fan Yu had been so despondent. But in Fang’s opinion, it was still good that things were broken off between Fan Yu and Gu Xiulan. Even he could see that the two of them would only have made one another miserable. He supposed that it was a benefit of his low birth that he did not have such troubles.
“Maybe so,” Jian said with a sigh, looking up at the sky. Jian himself was still troubled by Xiulan’s departure. Han Fang felt a needle of irritation. He wished that his brother would not pine so.
Fang let out a raspy cough, drawing Han Jian’s attention. ‘How have your own negotiations been going?’ he signed.
“Father is still in talks with the Guo clan. There’s a half daughter of one of their Ebon River’s ambassadors that he’s trying to negotiate for,” Han Jian said without much enthusiasm. “But let's leave that aside.”
Han Fang nodded agreeably. He would have to look into it himself. Even a Zheng-sired bastard - half-child as it was polite to say - from the Guo clan would be a strong tie. Han Jian’s father was a canny negotiator; he would not shoot so high if he did not think his odds were good.
“What I actually came up here for was to give you good news,” Han Jian continued, a genuine smile returning to his face. “Your spirit beast is here.”
Han Fang blinked then blinked again, looking around at the empty field.
“Well, not here, here,” Han Jian said sheepishly. “I mean they’re arriving today. I figured I should let you know so you can go meet her.”
‘Her?; Han Fang signed. He felt strangely nervous at the idea of meeting his spirit. He had known that one was coming for some time, but it hadn’t quite seemed real until now.
“Her name is Sidao,” Han Jian said. “Ah, fair warning, she might be a little rough. Like I said, I couldn’t get you a partner from the main line, but the clan managed to entice a few of the Waste branch in, and your partner is one of them.”
Han Fang’s eyebrows rose. The tigers of the southern wasteland were wild and not often inclined to bonding. The feeling was generally returned since they were even less inclined to obey their human partners than their more northern kin. He would not complain however. ‘Thank you so much, Jian. I will be sure to make it work.’
Han Fang was less certain of his words as he arrived at the forest clearing which had been set out for their meeting. The caravan of the Han family which the spirit should have arrived with was here, unloading goods for the Argent Peak Sect, and would soon be moving north to eventually arrive at Xiangmen to purchase foodstuffs and tea.
However, the clearing was empty.
Knowing the temperament of the tigers of Han, Han Fang considered that perhaps Sidao had gotten bored and wandered off. But somehow, that felt wrong. He felt a tension in the air, the hairs on the back of his neck rising. Slowly, Han Fang turned, observing the edge of the clearing and the swaying grass and brush.
Carefully, he extended his senses, letting the sizzle of the heavy currents touch his mind.
He jerked himself to the side just as something thin and invisible carved a path through the air before slicing through the trunk of a young tree and deep into the sturdier oak behind it.
“Hmph. Not wholly unaware then.” The voice was sibilant, feminine, and deeply bored in tone.
Han Fang met a pair of golden eyes suspended in the evening shadows of the canopy. It was only then that he felt the sharp sting of pain from his upper arm and the faint wetness of blood. He had been cut, and it had taken several seconds to even notice. He could have been angry at the attack, but this was simply the way of tiger spirits. If she had intended him true harm, the cutting wind would have aimed for his head.
“I am pleased to meet your expectations,” he said in the voice of his spirit, meeting those predatory eyes steadily. “Just as I am pleased to be shown your prowess.”
“What a respectful boy,” the spirit purred, and around the eyes emerged the rest of the tiger’s frame, melting from the shadow. The tiger had pale grey fur, the color of the ash wastes, which was broken up by stripes of deep black. Smaller and more lithe, more akin to the great cats of the hills and mountains, her frame was less muscular than Heijin’s. “This Sidao greets the cub of Han.”
“Han Fang greets the child of the Grave Wardens,” he said formally. The southern branches were descended from Grandmother Tiger's third cub, who had taken up the southern watch, and they had developed to consume the ashen flesh of the Walkers. “I am honored by your presence.”
Sidao’s long tail flicked back and forth as the tiger stalked around him, observing from every angle. “You are,” she said haughtily. “Understand that I seek new hunts, new foods, new amusements. Your tale was of interest. You will not bore me, I hope, deathtouched.”
Han Fang straightened his shoulders. “I will not.”