It was always fascinating watching another’s cultivation style at work. She watched, interested as Master Jin moved through his fields and beehives, deep in meditation. It was odd to use moving meditation so heavily. She knew not of a single Sect in the Azure Hills who used it to this extent, as Disciple Gou Ren was deeply cultivating as well. He carefully planted the rice seed in the barrels so that he could continue upon the path that he was given by Master Jin.
She knew of the technique, of course. She had even managed to perform it once. When she had first received the Jade Grass Blades, the treasures of her sect.
She had been overjoyed and immediately gone off to practise. Not out of any desire to train, but...because she wished to. It was more a dance than a form. She had whirled through something, light on her feet, and ignoring the style of the Verdant Blade Sect.
Something that was folly. Deviation in one's cultivation was dangerous at the best of times and giving in to a whim? It was unacceptable.
Even if those footsteps sometimes found their way into her forms in the heat of battle.
Still, she observed closely. She concentrated intently upon his Qi. How deeply he drove it into the earth. While the amount was beyond her, she could feel it. She could feel the beginnings of something taking hold and then fading.
She took a breath and tried to copy it. Deeper and deeper, she drove her Qi, searching. Reinforcing. Trying to find whatever it is the others found.
She found nothing that day.
She was just about to enter deeper meditation for the night, when her sparring partner approached, looking absolutely enraged.
Tigu’s fur was matted, and slightly sticky looking. Xiulan could smell honey on her and there was a bulbous welt on her nose.
She was trying to look dignified as she approached for their nightly spar.
The cat really didn’t appreciate her laughter.
Blades of cutting force arced out and Xiulan’s feet unconsciously moved in time to a dance only half remembered.
The battle was short and the scuffle vicious, but she ended the battle with a cat in her lap, glaring petulantly at her.
Her fingers wove through soft fur. There was something to be said, for being able to play with your sparring partner like this, after you defeated them. It was quite pleasant.
She began her meditation again, searching for whatever eluded her.
Time, She told herself. Time.
“Senior Sister! Senior Sister! Tell us about how you slew Sun Ken!” One of the disciples eagerly asked. They crowded around, as close as they felt they could get. Their eyes were full of stars, eager to hear her tale.
“He was wounded from the first fight. Jiang Yuan, one of our noble fallen, managed to strike a blow.” She lied. She had chosen Jiang Yuan, who had stood faithfully behind her. He was old, so old for a disciple, stuck on the first stage of the Initiate’s Realm for decades. He was full of good humor, and was kind to the mortals. He followed faithfully the teachings of righteousness, and had been the first to volunteer when called upon to hunt Sun Ken, offering his blade and following her lead without hesitation. He was loyal and stalwart, a fixture of the sect for as long as she could remember.
Sun Ken split him in two, like a man splits a log, laughing all the while. Poor old Yuan had barely managed to slow him.
“They were easy to follow after their failed ambush.” Lie. “They were bandits, after all, and so damaged they fled like chickens with their heads cut off.” Lie. “I found them, about to set upon the village, and did to them as they managed to do to so many others. They were far too intent to notice my own ambush.” Lie, lie, lie.
She wove a tale of a daring, audacious assault. The other disciples laughed at the irony of bandits being ambushed. They gasped as she “dueled” Sun Ken, her own swords meeting, and exceeding Sun Ken’s own.
How she left Sun Ken’s corpse for the dirt, not even bothering to bury him. How her own strikes had destroyed him so utterly, bringing back even his head was a worthless endeavor.
The disciples laughed and cheered. The women looked on with wonder and admiration. The men with awe and desire. Xiulan’s face was locked in an imperious, self-satisfied smirk.
As one expected from the Young Mistress.
She was lucky they couldn’t hear her thoughts.
Xiulan had her attention fully on her current task. The Qi structures and infusions were not overly difficult to grasp, but it was as if they had all come from different techniques. There were too many differences. One was a spiral, one was almost spiky, and yet still others were like solid earth. Five--no, six of them, fused into one.
She thought back to the guidance she had received. The touch of Master Jin’s Qi was firm, yet gentle. Her Wood aligned Qi had responded instantly and obediently, remembering the patterns he guided it through, like it was growing into place. She had to stop it from automatically just repeating the same actions, and actually understand what she was doing.
There were parts that should have caused the Qi to run out of control. They did if she did not exercise her control properly, and would burst the plants that she was working on. But once properly accounted for, it was a truly profound art.
When functioning properly, they supported each other, and smoothed out odd ripples in the structure, and targeted everything. The plant, the soil, and the water.
She finished one more iteration of the technique and satisfied at her mastery, she stood. Master Jin was teaching Disciple Gou Ren the technique and the monkey--no, that was rude of her. He had some bad habits and wandering eyes but… he was tolerable. At least he tried to hide his glances, and even unprompted would tear his eyes away, obviously chastising himself.
It was amusing.
She waited patiently until he was finished instructing the other disciple, and acknowledged her.
“I’m guessing you’ve got it down?” He asked her. He seemed a little surprised, but also impressed. “Well, I suppose I did get all of the trial and error out of the way. It took me months to make sure everything worked together. So much plant goo.” He muttered, his eyes unfocused.
‘As expected of a Hidden Master, It was an original creation! He had passed on to her one of his techniques! Even when she did not comprehend the first lesson he had given, his generosity knew no bounds!’
A hand clapped onto her shoulder. She nearly flinched at the sudden movement and contact, but it bore no ill will. It was meant to be encouragement. “Time for a practical application.” He declared. “Grab one of the tubs, and follow me.”
She was quick to obey, following her Master outside to a pile of dirt. It was black as pitch, and smelled of life and decomposition and yet… it wasn’t unpleasant. Master Jin appeared to be pondering something as he leaned down.
Master Jin dug his hands deep into the loamy earth and brought up a handful. He took a deep breath and sighed happily.
“This is our foundation. Each year we add to it and each year, hopefully, it will get better. Lots of people forget that the dirt is alive.” He mused.
Xiulan listened intently.
He held out the dirt for her to pursue. “You know what bacteria are, right?”
Xiulan nodded as she examined the offering. The tiny attackers who invaded the body and slew the host if they were able.
“Well, they’re not all bad. Just like you need some insects, you need some bacteria in the soil. The bacteria break down the plants and the waste you put into the soil, so that it's useable for the next things you grow. It's a balancing act. Too much of a good thing can be harmful.” He paused and seemed to be thinking of a metaphor. “Think of it like… pill toxicity.” he decided.
“A pill may help you grow your cultivation, but what would happen if you took a pill every day and damn the consequences?”
“It would build up in your body and harm you, eventually.” She replied, her mind racing. “Is this why you don't command the plants to grow?” She asked.
He seemed taken aback by the question.
“Well, I could. These things work on a different timescale than us. I suppose I could command the plants to grow, once or twice, even, without unduly harming the soil.” He was thinking deeply on her question. “But make no mistake, it would harm it. There are simply too many things in the soil, and you can't target all of them. Or at least I can’t.” He said ruefully and shrugged. “Like that forest there. All the tree’s roots are connected through strands of a tiny fungus. In times of drought, or poorer soil conditions, it helps transport nutrients and water to all the trees in the system. If I forgot about that portion and just made the trees grow more, what would happen? Would they consume the fungus for more food? Would the fungus grow out of control, and eat the roots? If it destroyed the fungus, the rest of the forest would suffer. If it depleted the soil, nothing could grow there for years. It would be a cycle of waves. Build up, break down. Why not just keep building up? In the end, I think it would take the same amount of time. It may be possible. But it would be a lot more study, and we would need a….higher comprehension, before I attempted such a thing.”
“It's a whole world in there. It would be a shame to carelessly destroy it.”
Xiulan digested this information the best that she could. Of course, it would come back to his first lesson. Connections. Especially the connections that did not seem obvious, or were too small to see. Xiulan bowed her head at this wisdom.
“Now, lets learn about phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium, soil density, and their relation to good growth!” Master Jin cheered, enthusiasm shining in his eyes.
Xiulan searched once more, just letting her consciousness flow. Now that she knew what to look for, she could feel the little roots connecting each other. Forming into a web. She could feel the depths of Master Jin’s Qi.
She could feel the other. The beating heart of the land. What Master Jin had been driving his Qi into. It felt so much like him and yet not. She still couldn’t tell where he ended and this separate entity began.
There was focus. There was intent. She was being watched. She observed the glorious entity, overflowing with Qi, and with shining golden cracks running through it.
It was almost a body. Almost a human form.
Xiulan approached, in a trance, travelling deeper and deeper, towards the entity. It was shining with power and so, so beautiful. It recoiled and yet still she approached, her Qi spurring her onwards. Like there was something ancient, hidden within the Verdant Blade scriptures, that drove her forwards.
The Qi stopped recoiling. Instead, it held out its arms.
The hands reached out, as if to cup her face. Xiulan approached the embrace, raising her own arms to receive the spirit.
The spirit’s hands gripped firmly the braids on either side of her head.
A metaphorical forehead connected with her own, in a rather vicious headbutt.