It was a beautiful night. A cool breeze carried through the trees, as Xiulan raised the hoe again, bringing it down to bite into the earth.
‘What are you trying to learn from this?’
What was she missing?
What profound secret eluded her? She could not comprehend it. What was the purpose of this? What was the advantage? She knew those with powerful wood-aligned Qi could grow entire forests in moments or complete fields like this one faster than she could blink. Yet he didn’t.
Why? Why wait?
The first days, as Master Jin showed her how to use the hoe, had been interesting and she had been eager to accomplish what he had shown her. She pushed some Qi into the ground like he said, even though it was rather wasteful. She did her tasks with diligence. She supposed this was her own fault, for expecting to learn things so swiftly.
She should be content. She was receiving enough cultivation resources that it was as if she was Master Jin’s favoured Disciple more than her own Sect’s! Especially the “Maple Syrup” they had often. It contained both Fire and Wood Qi. The wood Qi was added to her own, without concentration. It filled her reserves and strengthened her body. It was less effective in a single sitting than the few pills she had consumed, but she could consume it far more often than even a single pill. And quantity had a quality all its own.
Yet it was the Fire Qi that astounded her. In consuming it as one did mortal food, it passed from her body without a need for careful monitoring and purging. If she consumed a pill of a Fire Nature without extreme care, it would ignite her own Qi. It had the possibility to burn her cultivation, as fire burns across the grasslands.
There was no worry about that here. It simply dissipated through her digestion, never once threatening her.
She was being largely treated as an honoured guest. She was fed, she was clothed, she was given places to cultivate. Master Jin even drew a bath for her every day, and Senior Sister washed her back! She returned the favour, of course. It was only polite.
Yet she was unsatisfied.
There was a burning hunger for knowledge. For ascension. For a life, lived on her own terms.
When he had offered to teach her how to properly grow the spirit herbs, it had felt like a failure. That she was being assigned a different task because she was too slow and too unskilled to comprehend his methods. Animals comprehended what he was doing! Spirit Beasts!
And yet she did not.
She sighed, as she stopped fixing the rows of furrows she had been tasked with building. She eyed the house of Master Jin, and her face flushed. She would be outside tonight. Senior Sister had asked for privacy.
She had to credit Disciple Gou Ren. He looked like a monkey, and he had the cunning of one too, swiftly laying claim to a shack to have a roof over his head.
He had even offered to share it with her, but she refused. He was growing tolerable, as he no longer stared openly at her. But she would not be sharing a roof, especially a roof that small with him. Shared commiserating expressions over how loud Senior Sister’s voice got was one thing. This was another.
She raised the hoe to strike the earth and paused.
What was she trying to learn from this?
She didn’t know.
She slumped against the fence and looked up to the waning moon.
‘A little blade of grass, grasping desperately for the heavens she can never reach.’
She froze at the voice, fury filling her veins. Her head snapped up, and she glared at the smug-looking cat, licking her paw.
“Begone.” she snarled at the cat. “Do not test me, little one.”
How the damnable little beast had heard that particular insult was beyond her. Her fists clenched at the saying leveled against her Sect. Dismissing their actions, and their cultivation. As worthless as the grass that covered the ground.
It hurt because it had truth to it.
The cat scoffed, laying down, and watching her.
Xiulan grabbed the hoe and began again.
How many times had she heard that? Sneering faces, looking down their noses at the Verdant Blade Sect.
If she was honest with herself, sometimes, she thought they were right. She never would reach the heavens in a place like the Azure Hills.
Yet simply striving upon this path was admirable in itself. She knew she was too weak to survive outside this small pond. It was why she had jumped on the opportunity to train under Master Jin.
‘She cannot figure even this out, how disappointing.’ The cat mocked, and it took all of Xiulan’s self-control not to throw the hoe at it.
‘You should leave. You are barely tolerated here, interloper. A worthless parasite, flouncing around and dining off our benevolence.’ Tigu purred.
“I am not the one who was kicked out of Master Jin and Senior Sister’s bed.” Xiulan shot back. The cat recoiled, her eyes going wide. “I’ve seen you skulking about and pining up at the windows.” Tigu hissed angrily, yet Xiulan continued.
“Shall I join them?” She mockingly pondered, purposefully straightening her back and pressing out her chest. “If I asked, I do not think they would deny me your place--”
She jerked her head back. Two strands of brown hair drifted on the breeze, severed by a blade of pure cutting Qi.
Xiulan smiled. The fox-boy, Yun Ren, ran away from his punishment. The monkey-boy was subdued and had not offered her a reason to work out some of her stress.
This… this would make her feel much better.
“I will gladly trade pointers with you, little sister,” Xiulan said, a smile spreading across her face. The Jade Grass Blades leapt into the air and floated obediently behind their mistress.
“Come, let us go to the forest, and not disturb Master Jin.”
The cat scoffed but followed, glaring daggers as Xiulan purposefully turned her back on the predator.
She was honestly surprised that the Spirit Beast did not pounce upon her. For all her mocking, the Spirit Beast did seem to have some honour.
They met in a clearing. The cat was seething, while an odd calm settled over Xiulan.
[Claw Arts: Five-Fold Blades]
Five disjointed claws made of Qi formed shards of light and murderous intent.
[Verdant Blade Sword Arts: Six Blades of Grass]
The swords grew and rose like blades of grass, thrusting proudly toward heaven.
The cat’s eyes narrowed at the number of swords.
“It is uncouth to bully the weak.” Xiulan hummed.
Tigu exploded into motion, her form blurring as she struck at Xiulan.
Perhaps, before Sun Ken, before she broke through to the fourth stage, such a strike would have been difficult for Xiulan to counter. Perhaps she might have strained a little. Five blades met five blades and stopped them dead. The sixth sliced up from beneath, forcing Tigu to throw her body out of the way.
“Who was reaching for a heaven they could never grasp?” Xiulan mocked. “The first blow is still yours, little sister.”
Xiulan had to admit, the cat was fast. Her bouncing leaps were nearing the level of a movement technique! Tigu had great instincts and struck with unrelenting ferocity. She was a small target, and leveraged it well, bouncing like a demonic ball from one tree to another.
Xiulan didn’t move, rooting herself, and simply standing with her arms behind her back. Blades of light struck blades of grass and were rebuffed.
So the cat redoubled her efforts. Her movement increased to a level above her previous. Xiulan actually had to start moving. They sped through the forest, dodging and weaving through trees, yet their blades left not a trace upon their surroundings.
In one exchange, a leaf fell between them, floating between slashing claws, and spinning swords. It touched the ground unmolested, not even the air disturbed along its passing.
Tigu was visibly tiring. Her eyes narrowed, and her blades shot out like spears, with enough force to actually halt Xiulan’s own swords, forcing an opening.
Tigu shot through the gap, her eyes gleaming with victory, five more blades forming, ready to strike her.
To Xiulan’s surprise, they were partially blunted, and not aimed at vital locations. They would hurt, but they were not designed to kill. A little insulting, for the cat to think she would strike true. But it was appreciated. Her return strike would be just as measured.
Two more blades of grass formed, meeting five blades of light. Skill trumped talent.
Xiulan’s palm impacted Tigu’s stomach, throwing the cat backward, and into a tree. A light blow, mere chastisement.
Yet the cat’s shock was clear, as she laid there, glaring at Xiulan.
Tigu sprung back to her feet, full of fury and humiliation. Xiulan raised an eyebrow and inclined her head.
“A good bout, little sister,” she complimented. The cat would have none of it. Her eyes narrowed.
Tigu hissed angrily. All ten blades of cutting intent formed. Twelve blades of grass rose at their mistress’ command.
They prepared themselves for another bout--
And then, there was presence.
‘Who dares disturb this land’s peace?’ Ri Zu’s voice echoed.
They both froze.
A mighty cock strode from the trees, his eyes focused fully upon them. He nearly glowed under the light of the moon, his bearing resplendent.
‘You might have interrupted the Great Master and The Healing Sage with your roughhousing. Such things are unacceptable.’
“We were trading pointers, First Disciple.” Xiulan declared, clasping her hands in respect. Tigu looked once at Xiulan, and nodded. Bi De observed them, stroking his wattles with one of his wings.
‘The First Disciple begs you to allow him to trade pointers with you, then. We are all disciples here.’
Xiulan swallowed. She was not used to being the inferior in these situations. “...Treat us kindly, First Disciple?” She asked.
The rooster raised an eyebrow, studying her a moment. Bi De inclined his head.
Xiulan shared a quick glance with Tigu. The cat nodded.
[Verdant Blade Sword Arts: Sixteen Blades of Grass!]
[Claw Arts: Ten-fold Reaping Blades!]
They struck as one.
Xiulan staggered back to the field and collapsed against the fence post. Tigu flopped beside her. Xiulan was exhausted and sweaty, yet she could not even say her pride had been too badly wounded. Bi De was in the profound realm. Their fate had been sealed the moment he laid eyes upon them.
A clucking laugh echoed out. Bi De alighted in front of them. There was not a feather out of place.
‘The First Disciple declares that was most invigorating.’ Ri Zu said for him.
“Thank you for your pointers, First Disciple.” Xiulan intoned. The cat just snorted.
She sighed, and even exhausted, she rose and went back to the hoe. She started her work again, trying to comprehend.
There was a cluck. Bi De was gazing at her. Slowly and with great purpose, he pulled back a leg, fixing a furrow that was inexact. There was something there. She watched intently as he did it again, energy swirling about him.
And then he turned and walked away. Xiulan sighed, frustrated.
“Disciple Xiulan.” Ri Zu said as Bi De began to leave. “The First Disciple Says ‘Some things cannot be forced. Time is the only way.’’’
Xiulan paused and lowered the hoe again. She staggered over to the post and sat down beside Tigu. She would not have her answers this night, but she was no longer as frustrated.
The cat gave her a half-hearted glare.
‘You were defeated most embarrassingly.’ The cat told her.
“And you were not?” Xiulan asked back.
The cat hissed.
‘I require a sparring partner.’
Xiulan pondered refusing her, but the cat was good. She just needed more technique.
And when offered the opportunity to kill her… Tigu had pulled her strike, even after their harsh words.
“At night, in the forest.” She agreed. “Smacking some sense into such a rotten child will do wonders for my health.”
Tigu sneered. ‘Wait for me, harlot. I will transcend the limitations of this small form!’
Xiulan nodded, amused. The cat was very childish. “I’m sure your human form will be as miserably ugly as your personality.” She said agreeably.
The cat glared at her words, and then a strange look crossed over her face.
“My what form?” Tigu asked.