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We settled in with tea, and after a brief moment of silence, Xiulan began to speak.

It was then when I realised that I was probably in over my head.

I wasn’t very good at this. Well, is anyone? Probably Meimei, considering she got Xiulan to talk in the first place.

I had no real frame of reference for the things Xiulan was telling me.

I had lost people. In both lives. But I had never been a warrior. None of those losses could ever really be said to be my fault.

A farmer, and an orphan turned cultivator.

So all I could do was listen. It was my first time hearing it. I had never listened in before, because you just don’t do that. Whenever I got too curious, I’d start drawing something to distract myself. Which was probably a bad idea to draw on my earning reports, but it was a small price to pay, and they’re still legible anyway.

Listening to the tale of Sun Ken from Xiulan was certainly much different that hearing about it from the people who “knew” what happened. The news had spread into Verdant Hill, during my last visit to it, and everybody had been talking about the “Demon Slaying Orchid”. There had even been a puppet show. Sun Ken there was an oafish buffon, who was slapped up and down the stage by the member of the Verdant Blade Sect, to laughter and sneers.

In the stories, the people who Xiulan was talking about...didn’t exist. It was a band of ten cultivators. Or even sometimes it was merely Xiulan alone who had destroyed them.

I could see how that could eat at somebody.

She didn’t blame me. I don’t really think it occurred to her to level any sort of accusation at me, for making her take the fame. To her it was a personal weakness

It didn't stop me from feeling a bit guilty. I had started to like Xiulan. Especially these past few days, she had mellowed out and finally seemed to relax. She was Meiling’s friend. She was kind of my employee.

When her voice finally trailed off, she turned to me. She was calm…. But she looked like she was waiting for judgement.

It had hurt her. It had hurt her, and I was responsible, but… I don’t think I regretted it.

“I do not regret giving you that sword.” I told her, staring up at the stars. “What is done is done. It was better than keeping it a secret. So many people celebrated his death. So many people now longer fear the vile man. And I could think of worse people to have such fame, then one who would not abuse it.”

She lowered her head at my statement. It was true. Some grandstanding asshole would have taken advantage of it. Hell, I had expected her to take advantage of it.

Instead… Xiulan cared.

“What I do regret is how I treated you. To me...It was like you were a dog I was throwing a bone to. I gave you a treat to do my bidding. I thought of you like...others I knew. That you would be happy with what I gave you, and not care about the consequences. It was cruel, and you didn’t deserve it. For that, I do apologise. You were a better person than I assumed you to be.”

She blushed at the statement, fidgeting slightly, but otherwise remained quiet. I planted a hand on her shoulder. I tried to be reassuring.

“Caring about other people isn’t a weakness.” I finally said. “It takes a certain kind of person to be able to bear that weight, instead of ignoring it. Never let anyone tell you that you aren’t strong.” I told her.

She smiled at the praise.

“People who cut that part out of themselves. People who step so easily on others… I hate it. It's part of the reason why I left my old sect. If the path to the heavens requires one to discard such things…. It is not a path I wanted to tread.”

She perked up at the mention of my past. Maybe not that whole story tonight. But I would tell her. I couldn't let my Disciples see me as being a hypocrite, now could I? Better to let people in and be hurt, rather than never let anyone in at all.

“After all, the road you take to get there is just as important as the destination itself.”

Maybe it was just a platitude.

Maybe they were empty words.

But at her considering gaze… it may have been the right thing to say.

She brought her hands up in the traditional gesture of respect.

“Thank you for your guidance, Master--”

This was either going to make her hate me.. Or make her more comfortable with me. Maybe it was a bit rude, after she had poured her heart out.

I cut her off with a headlock, pulling her in to ruffle her hair. It might have been a bit much, as her eyes bugged out at the sudden contact. It was half a hug, half a rebuke.

“Come on now, none of that. We’re friends, right? It may be a little late, but you should just call me Jin.” I told her as she froze.

She spluttered in shock.

“I could never, Master Jin!” She gasped out.

“I’m gonna make you say it.” I told her with all seriousness as I let her go. She seemed a bit off kilter as I let her go, still shocked at the sudden contact.

“And This Cai Xiulan will never disrespect Master Jin!” She shot back, smoothing out her ruffled hair and glaring at me.

It was half-hearted at best.

She got up with great dignity, and walked to the edge of the roof, before turning around and giving me the proper bow.

I rolled my eyes.

“Master Jin?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.”

I waved her off, and she hopped down from the roof. The last of the tea was cold, but I stayed up for a little longer.

================================

She was in the valley again.

It was as it always was. The stale air. The shock of the impacts. The sheer desperation she felt as she tried her hardest to save as many as she could.

The blood, the screams, the falling rocks.

The faces of dying men. She turned her gaze to the one responsible.

Sun Ken.

He gazed down upon her, and drew his blade with a grin.

The duel began. The wraiths and shades of the damned that rose from the muck were scarlet and shrieking.

As if in a trance, she moved to steps that she always did in her dream. The steps that led to Sun Ken plunging his blade into her, into killing her as she finally woke.

The same as it always was. The wraiths grasped her, and held her tight.

The Demon’s grin twisted his face into a massive leer. He rose his blade high, and prepared to end her.

He laughed at her. “Too weak. No wonder your men died.”

Something felt like something kicked her shin. A little foot, full of so much force. It changed her footing, breaking the hold of the arms around her legs.

Forcing her leg into a position that was so, so familiar, but was not a part of this story.

The spell broke. The spell that forced her to die, again and again.

She dodged the descending blade on instinct.

It seemed that both of them were shocked. Sun Ken stared at his blade, dumbfounded that it was not embedded in her chest.

….was he larger than normal? His visage was twisted in a way that she had never seen before. His muscles bulged, and his blade twisted and warped.

He screamed. The world shook and cracked, and he leapt toward her.

“Caring is not a weakness.” Senior Sister declared.

The road one takes is just as important as the destination. Master Jin whispered.

She clasped her hands together, as if she was praying. The start to a ceremony, long forgotten.

And she began to dance.

His strikes were faster. They were more powerful, as the valley started to crack and break. Like it was starting to disintegrate.

“All your fault! All your Fault!” The demon howled as it bore down on her.

But.. despite his ferocity, despite his wrath….

The blade was so easy to dodge.

Her feet moved to the sound of invisible drums, as she pulled the Demon into her new path. Into her new way. Her blades might as well have not been there, as she slid around every blow, following a new, thundering rhythm.

Sun Ken twisted and warped, changing more and more into a demon as the valley began to shatter.

No matter it’s rhythm, no matter how the mad, whirling strikes changed…. They never came any closer to hitting the dancer.

He roared and he raged. He broke and he shattered, striking the ground and tearing it up like he was actually doing damage.

He didn’t see the grass growing in his wake.

With a mighty roar, he swung his blade, red and black energy screaming off it.

It was almost anti-climactic, as she stepped forward, and plunged her blade into the Demon’s heart.

The thing’s smile of hate abruptly froze on its face. It seemed confused. Black and corrupted blood spilled out of his wound like a river, pouring out onto the earth. Hands, skeletons, faces tried to rise from the muck, but wherever the blood landed, grass grew in Verdant Green.

The Demonic visage that had haunted her dreams for months tried to rise, tried to grasp her, and pull her down with it.

A Jade Grass Blade sang through the air, and relieved the Demon of his head.

The valley broke completely, dissipating into motes of light.

From the light, came Master Jin’s farm. She turned at the sound of thudding feet.

There, before her, was the earth spirit, riding a massive boar. Both were laced with gold. It glowed with power and majesty as it beheld her, trotting over to the corpse of Sun Ken. With a single, mighty stomp, his body was pressed into the ruined earth.

And the Boar, who looked so much like Chun Ke, nuzzled her side affectionately.

Xiulan looked around at the Farm. At the rapidly disappearing remains of Sun Ken. And at the lightness in her soul.

Xiulan went to bow, to kowtow, to express her utmost gratitude to the spirit of the earth--

A particularly muddy ball of dirt slapped into her face. She staggered backward from the blow.

The earth spirit, missing an arm, pointed and laughed at her.

Xiulan, with great dignity, wiped the mud off her face and bent down, as to give a bow anyway.

The earth spirit fell off her pig, as Xiulan’s own strike, filled with bits of grass, impacted her head.

The little Earth Spirit rose with a grin, her head covered in muck.

It was not a nice grin, as the very earth began to heave.

Xiulan considered that she may have made a mistake...and then forged onward anyway.

=======================

“See you later, brother.” Yun Ren said to me, as we clasped forearms. “Come see me off before I leave, yeah?”

“Count on it. We’ll have a party before you travel up north.” I replied.

“Sure I can’t convince you to part ways with your recording crystal, at least for a little?” he asked hopefully.

I’ll admit, it was a bit tempting, to see the north… but I had stuff I wanted to record too. And I was a little leery about handing out that much money to somebody. Yun Ren would probably rather die than have the crystal break… but I’ll have to apologise.

Or find him a cheaper crystal.

“...maybe.” I told him instead, a bit noncommittally, but he accepted that.

I never did end up getting a story about Meiling’s mom. I still just wanted to hang out and do nothing with my friends.

But duty called, and I couldn’t just leave my farm to the animals indefinitely. No matter how much being a lazy, procrastinating shit called to me.

We’d visit next month, for the trip to Verdant Hill. But other than that, we said our goodbyes, and “see you laters” And started off back down the road.

“It will be good to be home.” Meiling said, as the Xong brothers hugged each other. Xiulan got one last flower crown from little Liu, and a stalk of spectacularly green grass from Xian.

She was very perky today as we began our run, a big grin plastered firmly on her face.

Our pace was brisk, as we set off back home. The ground disappeared under our feet.

Honestly, it even seemed faster than normal. Like something was almost pulling us along. I had to resist the urge to travel even faster, because unlike the previous time, this one didn’t make my back itch.

There weren’t any potholes, from my own and Chunky’s efforts, just hard packed and sloped dirt that I’d be turning into a real road soon enough.

I still think we got home at least an hour earlier than last time, though.

We found a sight that would never get old. Everybody, even the cows and sheep, were waiting at the gate.

We exchanged our customary bow, and Big D hopped up onto my shoulder.

There wasn’t much to do. Everything had been taken care of. The house was clean and fresh.

They had even changed the sheets, somehow. And somebody had put some fresh flower sprigs in a heart-shape on our bed, the cheeky shits.

At least Meiling found it funny.

We turned in early that night, even though I don’t think any of us were tired. Gou Ren went off with Peppa and Chunky to what was now his house, Xiulan went off with Tigger and Big D, and I was laying with my head in Meimei’s lap as she brushed my short hair, on our nice rock.

Take Me home, Country Roads.

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