Mediate. Train. Do the things Master Jin asked her to.
Meditate. Train. Do the things Master Jin asked her to.
Try to sleep. Dream.
She was in the valley, again.
Wake up feeling horrible.
Observe the earth spirit’s scornful glances.
Deflect Master Jin’s questions. Feel guilty for deflecting Master Jin’s questions.
Make no progress.
Two forms blurred through the night, cutting through the forest like dervishes. A foot hit the ground hard enough to leave a mark. Claws dug into bark hard enough to scar. A leaf floated through the air, and was split in two from an errant strike
Claws met swords. Frustration met frustration.
The two women struck with abandon. There was little of their usual grace. Just speed, power, and violence.
Yet one was more unbalanced than the other. A spray of blood, from a cut on her arm. Her guard was pierced. A blade of pure cutting Qi arced toward Xiulan’s eye.
Time seemed to slow, as the executioner’s blade descended. First her eye, and then into her skull. She watched with clinical interest, as her end neared.
She felt nothing.
At the last moment, the claw of Qi veered, losing cohesion. The Qi that struck was like liquid, running off her form, and not marking her at all.
Ah, she was defeated. The Jade Grass Blades dropped to the ground, falling from her grasp.
She expected Tigu to be happy with her victory. She had finally taken a bout off of her.
Instead, the cat looked enraged.
‘You dare pity me? You dare perform this poorly?! This Young Mistress should have taken your eye for this insult!’ the cat snarled, glaring at her.
“Ah. I apologise,” Xiulan muttered. Heavens above, she was so tired.
The cat seemed mollified at the apology, looking closely at her. ‘You need sleep,’ even the cat deduced. Master Jin and Senior Sister had been making noises of concern about her for a few days now. They had said that they could talk if she wished.
What was there to talk about? She was on her own for such matters. A cultivator faced the heavens alone.
A paw batted on her head, the cat glaring at her again. ‘Do not ignore me! We are sleeping!’ the cat demanded, and turned, as if to lead her back to the house.
Xiulan had a moment, where she considered lashing out at the cat…. but let herself be led.
The small wound stopped bleeding soon enough, even without a bandage.
Xiulan woke up coated in sweat, and suppressed a scream of frustration. It would not do to wake the others.
Tigu was still fast asleep, laying spread out on her back. An amusing sight she couldn’t appreciate. The darkness in here was stifling. Xiulan moved quietly, as to not wake her,
She stepped gently down the stairs, and exited the house, sitting, and staring at the river. How it flowed onwards, gathering in strength.
Time. Things always come back to time. Xiulan knew that some things could not be forced. Yet, after her ascension to the fourth stage of the Initiate’s realm, she had expected her abilities to continue growing. She had broken through her bottleneck, and it had been the time for her to rise.
Then the meetings had started. The pride of the Verdant Blade Sect! The killer of Sun Ken! The one who was sure to win the Dueling Peaks Tournament, and let the name Verdant Blade resound throughout the Azure Hills, and maybe even beyond!
The praise and expectations had tasted like ashes in her mouth. While normally she would be so proud that she was relied on, and praised so much, she had been growing distracted. She had tried not to be rude to the juniors who approached her, asking for stories about how she had laid low the wicked bandit. She stood stoically as she was lectured by one of the Elders on the proper way to incapacitate an opponent with the Verdant Blade Sword Arts, while gleaning no new insight from the encounter.
She had been given even more juniors to look after, after her troops had praised her leadership and skill. Had she even been skilled? She didn’t think she was. Sun Ken had led them on a merry chase throughout the countryside, and the few battles there were nearly ended in disaster.
She trained the others. She had meditated, searching for connections. She had received more resources in those few months than she had gotten years previously, from Spiritual Grass to the Qi Refining pills.
And yet, the progress was so damnably slow. She had to get better! She needed to get stronger! And she needed that strength soon, so she would be able to live up to the expectations placed on her. She told no one else of her troubles. How could she? She was the Young Mistress, the paragon of her sect, she could not be having doubts!
She took a deep breath, and tried to let it go. The First Disciple was right. She needed time. She needed to stop trying to force her own growth, and actually grow.
She stared up at the sky. The grass grew. The trees grew. And yet she did not.
Xiulan sighed wistfully. Was it her weakness that had caused the land spirit to rebuke her so?
“Are you all right?” A quiet voice asked. Xiulan jumped at the presence that had invaded her personal space.
“Ah! This one apologies if she woke you,” Xiulan muttered, chagrined. The smaller woman was staring at her, dressed in only a sleeping robe with her hair down.
She was looking concerned for Xiulan’s health.
“It's fine, Xiulan,” Senior Sister told her, smoothing out her gown as she sat down. “Now, what's wrong?”
“Ah, you need not bother yourself with this one-” Xiulan tried, but stopped at Senior Sister’s raised eyebrow.
“You smell like somebody just took a scythe to a patch of grass, and then coated it in rancid oil.”
Xiulan winced. Senior Sister’s power to smell Qi meant that she could smell one’s mood, more often than not.
“...it is a minor thing.” Xiulan tried to brush it off. She didn’t want them to know of any further shame.
Senior Sister hummed, clearly not believing her. But instead of asking again, as she was honour-bound to answer her savior, instead Senior Sister asked another question.
“What's your favourite food?”
Xiulan was stunned at the question, and how... mundane it was.
“If you had asked me a month ago, I would have said lotus paste mooncakes.” Xiulan admitted, “But now? Anything yourself or Master Jin sees fit to create.”
Senior Sister looked very interested in that piece of knowledge. There was a rustling, as Master Jin exited the house, with two cups of tea. Xiulan looked at the ground in shame, that he should witness this. He set the cups down.. Nodded to his wife, and left. The calming, herbal brew filled her nostrils.
“Your most fond recollection?” Senior Sister asked again, shaking her out of her shock.
Watching the peach blossoms with her mother, Xiulan answered. It had been so long since they had done that together. Ever since Xiulan’s training had fully consumed her life. Each question didn’t seem to connect with the last, but it was fun all the same. She felt her shoulders relax, and a small smile found its way onto her face.
They sat for a while, and an internal war raged inside her heart.
“I...I am having difficulties with a matter,” she admitted, her tone wavering. What was she doing? “Senior Sister, have you ever had one under your care perish?” The question was a disrespectful one. One she regretted asking as soon as it left her mouth.
Senior Sister’s eyes took on a somber cast. Her mind going back to whatever she had seen.
“...too many,” she whispered, her fists clenching. She looked to the side, remembering. “Mothers, bleeding their last, with or without their child. Babes too weak to breathe. The shakes, rattling somebody’s body apart. Men vomiting up their stomachs.” Her voice did not waver, as she recounted these. Her voice was calm and measured, but slightly bitter. “And more animals than I care to count. I’m no miracle doctor, and neither is my father. We try our best. But there are always failures. Always people that no matter how hard you try, you can’t save.”
Senior Sister’s shoulders slumped slightly at the admission.
She looked back to Xiulan. There was no bitterness in her eyes. No rebuke. There was only compassion. She understood.
Xiulan’s heart clenched again. The guilt welled up, filling her throat with bile, but she managed to ask the burning question in her heart. “How… how do you…make peace with it?” Her gut. A cultivator must be at peace with death. She had even seen people die before this, but the charnel house that was the valley--Her father had just said that any emotions she felt were to be used to fuel her progress. That such a thing was only beneficial, as long as she controlled it properly.
“Did you swing the blade that ended them? Or did you try to protect as many as you could?” Senior Sister asked.
“….I tried,” she whispered. “But I led them. I gave the orders.”
Senior Sister’s hand slipped into her own. Her thumb made soft circles on the back of Xiulan’s hand.
“The first thing you did when we met, was to try and warn us of a dangerous monster. The second thing you did was swear to protect us, even at the cost of your life,” she whispered, her voice fond. “You face the heavens alone. But what you face right now is not the heavens.”
Xiulan looked at the water, winding its way forward.
“I remember every name,” Xiulan admitted.
“Tell me about them, please,” Senior Sister requested.
Jian Yuan, loyal and true. Lie Quan, who was perpetually poor from his gambling habits. Ming Po, and his pet duck. Hi Shin, and his dream to become a great general.
So many names. Some were just names, with the vague memory of a face. So many men that the others just disregarded, like they didn’t matter. Like their mothers, fathers, wives and children did not mourn for them.
She talked. She talked until the sun rose, each name draining part of her soul, and lifting part of the weight from her shoulders.
She didn’t know when her head met Senior Sister’s shoulder, as she slumped bonelessly onto her. She said the last name. Her eyes fluttered closed.
She swam into consciousness as she heard voices. Gentle fingers combed through her hair. Light, affectionate touches. Her head was resting on someone’s knees.
“You were right, starting off like that helped calm her down.” Senior Sister’s voice was warm.
“I’m glad it helped,” Master Jin whispered. “Or I hope it helped. Sometimes these things never heal.”
“I think she's going to be just fine. Call it your wife’s intuition,” Senior Sister said. The confidence in her voice was absolute.
Master Jin chuckled. “I believe that. Lotus Paste Mooncakes, huh? We’ve got some lotuses in the pond. I’ll see what I can do.”
Xiulan drifted back to sleep, soothed by gentle fingers and soft humming.