It was a beautiful day in the mortal realm. The sun was bright and warm, the air fresh, and there was a slight breeze through the valley’s tea shop.
Senior Disciple Lu Ri took a sip of his tea. It was a disappointing brew, watery and weak. He could taste the imperfections. The water was too hot. Steeped for slightly too long. It was something a mortal would not be able to taste, but the flavours fairly exploded upon his tongue.
Distasteful. But pertaining to the rules of the Cloudy Sword Sect, a Disciple, especially a Senior Disciple, must give face and compensate mortals fairly for services rendered.
He was receiving information from the establishment’s owner, so purchasing some tea was only polite. The biscuits, at least, were palatable. Quite good for a mortal’s hands, he would even declare.
He took a moment to reflect upon his quest.
“He should not be too hard to find.” He had declared.
The heavens made a mockery of mere men’s plans, it seemed. For indeed, how hard could Jin Rou be to find?
The answer was, evidently, hard enough.
It had been ten years since he last truly descended into the mortal world, and decided he would combine the journey with the other various chores that the sect required to be done, that had been put off due to lack of importance. He would find Jin Rou, deliver this letter, and be back in the sect within the month.
He was back in the sect within the month, but not because he had found the wayward ex-disciple.
Jin Rou had presented his papers at the western gate of Crimson Crucible city, and left in that direction. It was standard procedure in the city that every man and woman leaving the city were signed in and signed out, though the records consumed an enormous quantity of scrolls. At least he knew the date within three days, so he only had to search thirty two scrolls for the name, until he found it. He assumed that Jin Rou would wish to stay near to the city of his birth, as if one was unambitious, then they would naturally stay near familiar grounds.
So Lu Ri had, naturally, travelled in that direction as well, checking in at the various mortal villages along the path.
And just as naturally, he didn’t find him. In fact, after leaving through the western gate, he seemed to disappear. Or at least near immediately stop travelling west along the main roads. A befuddling set of circumstances.
So, Lu Ri had to change priorities. He went to do the chores instead. In doing so, he found that three of the men who once made minor implements for the sect had died. One had kept faith, continuously making what the sect had requested, despite never coming to collect, and his son showed him the warehouse. Lu Ri paid the half of the fee that was outstanding, and then, paid the fees incurred for the storage of the work. Such diligence should, as always, be rewarded.
The second had sold them all, and the son had no knowledge of the contract his father had signed. For this, Lu Ri struck his name from the Cloudy Sword Sect’s records, and handed him an itemized receipt for what the Cloudy Sword Sect was owed. They did pay half upon the start of the project, after all.
The third was simply dead, with little trace of his passing.
They really should not neglect such things for so long.
So he returned to the sect, and gathered many of the outer disciples. From there, he tasked them to aid him in finding Jin Rou. He could have done it all himself, but such a thing was folly. There were simply too many records to go through if he suddenly returned to the city.
His decision was rewarded. One of the disciples postulated that he originally intended to go north, not west. The reason he left through the western gate is because there had been a landslide in the north, rendering the roads impassable.
There was another, smaller road, that was accessed from the western gate, that cut north quite quickly, and avoided the worst of the landslide.
Lu Ri set out again, travelling along this road. And this time, he found a trace of the man in a small noodle shack.
“Oh, Aye, he wuz behind the counter as soon as those little bastards started throwin hands, yanno? Wuz quite the shock to have such a big lad takin’ shelter with us, but I’m not gonna begrudge him that. Noice and polite about it too. We wuz scrunched up, all cozy like, and he grabbed a splinter outta the air that woulda split me son in two! Helped clean up most of the mess when they were done. Good lad, Freckle boy. Looked like he wuz runnin from demons though. Up along this route over yonder.”
Finally, he had a lead.
So he continued his search. The accounts were few and far between. Picking up a cart and running with the family inside from a rampaging Earth-Crushing Devil Serpent. Removing a tree from the road. Dodging around fights and running away from them with speed.
And constantly moving like there was something nipping at his heels. Constantly looking scared, or even downright paranoid.
And always, always heading north.
Likely to the Howling Fang Mountains. That was the most likely answer, he would be better valued there. While the Fifth stage of the Initiates Realm was a middling power for that area, he would be strong and sought after as a spirit farmer.
The Master of the Establishment appeared before him, with another plate of confections.
“So, headed for Plunging River Pass?” he asked the nervous and fat man.
“I assure you, Master Cultivator, that is the most likely route.” The master of the establishment said with a cringing bow. “It is not the main route toward Howling Fang Mountain, but the Plunging Sky Fist Sect is known for their benevolence and maintenance of the road, so it is a common enough detour. Especially if the Main road gets too crowded for the Grading Fist Tournament.”
“I see. This Senior Disciple of the Cloudy Sword Sect thanks you for your time, sir.” Lu Ri intoned. “I shall finish my tea, and then depart.”
The man wrung his hands. “And ah… the…. Problem?”
Lu Ri turned to the ten men in a pile, all twitching and groaning with pain.
“They shall not bother you further, lest they wish for the wrath of the heavens to descend upon them. So swears this member of the Cloudy Sword Sect.”
The brigands all froze at the declaration.
Well, that was taken care of.
He paid the man, and went on his way.
These were really quite good confections.
It was in the Howling Crag Mountains that he lost the trail again. It did not continue north. He traveled and asked around for nearly a month, until the heavens finally graced him.
“Yeah, Big guy?” The caravan master asked with a frown. “We split off. He went west, nearly as soon as he entered the province.”
“...toward the Azure Hills?” He questioned, as he sampled some of the jerky they were selling.
“Yes, Master Cultivator. It seemed that way. Poor boy looked tired, but happy as soon as he started headin’ that direction.”
Who under heaven would ever willingly go to the Azure Hills?!
He was nearly in the poor area when his transmission stone vibrated, summoning him to return to the Sect.
The Senior Disciple’s eye twitched, but one did not disregard a summons from an Elder.
Elder Ge, his direct superior, was deep in contemplation as Lu Ri explained himself. He had Just returned from a short expedition to the southlands, in order to gather resources.
Now, he was refamiliarizing himself with what he had missed. Lu Ri’s mission and expenses had caught his eye, and he had been summoned to explain himself.
“Yes, Elder Ge. Pertaining to the sections on Honourable Departure, we are required to send him his mail.”
“Why do we even have that provision?” He sighed. “Very well, you may continue. For what reason did this Ex-disciple leave the sect?”
Lu Ri answered. “He was beaten severely, to nearly to point of death by one of the inner disciples, and decided that this path was not for him.”
The Elder frowned heavily. “The fire of the Youth is raging unchecked. It is one thing to trade pointers, but another entirely to beat one of your comrades so. I shall rectify this.”
The elder turned back to his task, a clear dismissal, and Lu RI began to leave.
“What is this ex-Disciple’s name?” The Elder asked, as Lu Ri reached the door. Idle curiosity.
The Elder froze, his face going red.
“Jin Rou?” He asked, as if he had misheard. Like he hoped he had misheard. “Tall, freckles, hardworking lad?” he asked as if he was quoting someone.
“Yes, Elder. That sounds like Jin Rou.”
A bit of blood leaked out of the corner of Elder Ge’s mouth.
Ah. Lu Ri thought. That could not be good.