The stone glided along its edges. Honing it. Bettering it. Maintaining it. It shuddered in anticipation. It was nearly time.
Time to cut.
The warm Qi suffused it. Checking it over for damages, and fixing those that could be fixed. The second rarely did such a thing.
When it said to the Second, when the Second found it, that it liked to cut, he had taken it to mean it liked to cut lives and flesh. He had used it to cut a great many people, and the cutting was good. The feeling of shearing through flesh and bone had been intoxicating. But it soon turned into a nightmare. A nightmare of Qi and blood.
It cut and it cut and it cut, and that was good.
But the cuts were not clean. They were ragged gashes. No. It was not good. It cut. It was meant to cut! Not this!
It screamed, and it raged, and it lost itself to the madness.The more it tried to refine its cuts, the more jagged the gashes would become. No. No. Not good! Not cutting.
And then the Second had died, and something had purged the madness. Its voice was so quiet. The Second complained often about it “screaming for cuts”. Ungrateful. It helped make him strong, and he stopped cutting properly!
But there was some sadness. The Second had some very nice cuts, once upon a time.
It was taken. It was taken by the Grass Blade. At first, it had been hopeful. Hopeful that she would fill it with grass Qi, and use it to split apart into multiple blades and cut. Cutting two different things at once! Yes!
But it was not to be.
It did not cut for a very long time. Someone took its hilt. It imprisoned it in this new carriage.
It sobbed. It whimpered. Would… would it not cut? It had been made to cut. It needed to cut. Cut.
And then silence.
It was brought back to where the Second was slain.
By that time… it was quiet. It was so sad. It would never cut again.
Then it was placed into the soil. Attached to a Third wielder.
And it cut. It cut the soil.
At first, it was surprised.
It was cutting.
One long, continuous cut.
Surprise turned to fascination.
It hit the first stone, and sheared straight through it.
For hours, and hours it cut.
It was put away for the night… and then the next day, it was brought to cut again.
This new cutting was fascinating. So many things went to its blade! The soil. The stones. The worms. The creatures. It cut so many things.
But best of all, it cut cleanly.
It was praised. It was praised, and oiled, and sharpened and nurtured so it could cut better. It was clad in the colour of the emperor, and decorated intricately. It learned new things, from where the Earth had cut into its carriage. The simplicity, and cleanness of his cuts had been sublime.
The Third cut. He cut for as long as he could. He listened to it, and moved his body so he could cut better. Cleaner.
And from its cuts, life grew.
How strange. How fascinating!
The honing was finished. Its wielder was prepared.
It shuddered again.
Its body was pressed against the earth. It was filled with Qi, dense, and packed hard.
This would be a difficult cut. But it would cut. The Third shifted, listening to its whispered instructions. Its edge aligned perfectly.
It shuddered. The Third heaved.
Sun Ne cut.
For hours, and hours and hours, it cut, laughing all the while.
I eyed the eager ox, as Babe pulled the plough, and helped us break up the road. One bad thing about reinforcing things like I had… was, well, they were reinforced. The top layer of soil didn’t want to move.
At first, I was going to ask Chunky for help, but he was off today, hanging out with Washy. It was the first time he had ever really asked for something, so I sent him off. His plaintive eyes, as we watched Xiulan’s symphony of knives in the kitchen, had been impossible to ignore.
I had planned on using a shovel, but Babe had been butting at Sunny the plow, and had been looking restless. He actually liked being hitched, for some reason. I didn’t know if he was… well, aware, but he seemed to like plowing, so I let him.
He was doing a good job, too. Only Rizzo was there minding the thing, while the rest of us worked on the road.
A proper Roman Road.
China had great roads too, but the Roman ones were what I remembered. They were probably pretty similar. This place even had better roads than Rome, make no mistake, but not out here. The roads closer to Crimson Crucible city could support giant monsters trying to walk across them.
Hell, roads were one of the reasons that Rome and China considered each other peers, the few times they interacted.
And like all good things, for a road, you needed a solid foundation, upon which to build your many layers.
First, compacted and leveled sand. Once more, cultivation let us cheat, because I had an extremely good, or probably, more like perfectly accurate, sense of when something was level, no tools required.
Next, came the giant slabs of stone that would form the base, and so things could drain off. Each layer got progressively smaller in size, and was packed down on top of the other, until we were using little pebbles and sand.
Finally, came the paving stones. The finish on the road. Nice big, thick slabs, slightly roughened so they wouldn’t get slippy in the rain.
The thing is, however, this needed a lot of stone. I had an answer to that. The same reason why this land was considered useless. There was so much rock around, just laying there. I didn’t know what kind of activity would have caused so much surface rock, when there was a deep layer of soil beneath them. They were giant, house sized things just kind of sitting there, and ready to be rendered down into gravel or paving stones.
Still, being able to crush them with your hands, or hew them into shape with an axe made things easy. Gou Ren still had a silly grin on as he smashed another rock with his bare hands. It did take him effort, and he was going to be on his ass come noon if he kept up that pace. Xiulan was working on paving stones with Tigger, cutting the slabs into the dimensions I wanted, while I stomped on the rocks to pack them in.
‘Don’t move’ I thought. ‘Drain well’. One stomp took care of things, instead of hours of packing them in.
We worked in companionable silence. Three humans, an ox, a cat and a rat.
I think there's a joke in there somewhere.
Xiulan was exhausted, come noon. Working with Master Jin was always tiring, as he used so much of his Qi, but today had been even more backbreaking than usual.
Xiulan would be the first to admit she knew little of road construction. After today, she felt a newfound respect for the mortals who had to perform such tasks, without Qi.
She was sweating, and grimy, and only an eighth of the way to Hong Yaowu. But she could not deny the sense of accomplishment she felt, as Master Jin praised their efforts. The afternoon sun was strong as it beat down on them, as they ate the last of what she had prepared for lunch. It was not something she had been tasked with, but it was good training. It expanded her ability and awareness, and coupled with the pole training, she could feel the improvement.
Though she had been surprised to see the peach, radiating Qi, just sitting out in the open.
There had been a brief impulse to take it… before she shook it off, and put it in a more secure location.
Stealing from Master Jin would be the height of dishonourable conduct.
Especially once she learned that he planned all along to share it with her, and the rest of the Disciples.
Her father would fight a tournament for such a prize.
Master Jin would give her some like it was something to be expected.
He insisted on her being disrespectful to him. He played as if he was a mortal. He had no sense of decorum.
He was so free. Free with his help. Free with his actions. Free with his emotions.
How.. how had she ever thought that he would punish her for some perceived slight? Had the feelings from the valley affected her judgement that much? Had her own upbringing clouded her judgement?
She didn’t know. It had taken a great many talks with Senior Sister to feel as at peace as she did now, and able to look at the world with new eyes.
“I actually think this is enough for today.” Master Jin declared, staring around at the road. “Let's go home and take a dip in the river.”
Gou Ren, from where he was laying on his back, groaning with overexertion, gave one of Master Jin’s “Thumbs up” gestures.
They packed up their tools, and collected Ri Zu and the Ox, and departed back to the house.
They were greeted by Chun Ke, and Wa Shi, both cheerfully going over their haul from the forest. She could feel the quiet strength of the earth, and the churning of a storm.
Master Jin and Disciple Gou Ren immediately stripped, jumping into the river, while she took a more sedate pace. Most of her clothes stayed on, and she entered a little bit further away, sighing with contentment at entering the cool water.
They all just took a moment to sit and relax… when Master Jin turned to the shore.
“Hey, Wa Shi, could we see what your other form looks like?” He asked. The fish immediately perked up, and preened.
His eyes closed. He slowly rose into the air, as his Qi shuddered. There was a pulse. There was a wave, and in an aura of water and Qi, Wa Shi changed.
Even when she was told that something had happened, even when she could feel it… it was not the same as seeing.
Seeing the majestic blue and gold dragon roar triumphantly into the air, and then begin to prance was something that she would remember forever.
Wa Shi was large. Large, but still small for a dragon. She had seen bones, once, of a river dragon that dwarfed him.
He was a bit more muscled then she would expect. His arms were long, and ended in a four-toed hand that had picked up a mushroom and was sniffing it eagerly. He had long whiskers, but no beard, and his eyes, instead of narrow and regal, were rounder, and still oddly fish-like. Two horns jutted from the back of his skull rising high into the air.
Finally, his long tail ended in a fin that was reminiscent of a carp.
Xiulan was stunned into inaction.
Master Jin, naturally, pulled himself out of the water and approached fearlessly.
“Look at you, you handsome devil!” He called, making the dragon shiver with pride.
“So big and strong!” he complemented, grabbing the dragon and scratching at the underside of his chin. The great, majestic creature of storms and lightning slumped with pleasure, like a giant cat, and began thumping one of his back legs against the ground.
There was a dragon here. There was a dragon here, who was happy to be a dishwasher, and eating her food.
She was shocked out of her bemused thoughts by a whoop, as Wa Shi leapt into the air with Master Jin on his back. They made a few circuits of the house, before the dragon plunged into the river.
“Hey! Who wants a Dragon Ride!” Master Jin shouted, a wild grin on his face.
Xiulan nearly laughed at the absurdity. Maybe for Master Jin, but for her? What sort of dragon would lower themselves to--
Wa Shi was beneath her. His great head raised from the water, and Xiulan instinctively grabbed his horns.
The dragon ascended.
Xiulan had always dreamed of flying. To be able to ride on her swords to distant places. Sometimes, it was an idle wish to escape to the sky, away from everything.
And now, she was soaring through the air, a dragon underneath her.
For the first time, a little Blade of Grass met the heavens she so desperately reached for.
She laughed. A joyous sound that sounded so strange coming out of her throat. The Dragon rolled and twisted, the wind rushing past her hair, climbing into the infinite blue above them.
She saw the land down below. The little house, the people staring up at her and shouting with glee.
It was beautiful.
So, so beautiful.
She stared at the wonder of the earth, the green hills that stretched on forever so far below her.
A sudden surge of protectiveness flared in her breast. From up here it looked so small. So vulnerable.
Senior Sister, helping as she was able. Master Jin’s smiles and laughter. The other Disciples, aiding as they could.
A choice that day to continue, led her to here. Soaring in the heavens with a dragon.
The heavens were not the goal. They were the consequence of a path.
A consequence of one’s Dao.
Something cracked, as she broke through to the fifth stage of the initiate’s realm. Her cultivation surged, and continued onwards, filling her body with might, and expanding her senses.
It pushed forwards. It broke something else.
Profound?! Water swirled. Grass grew. Fire raged. An ancient scene flashed before her eyes.
She didn’t even notice they were descending until they hit the water.
She washed up on the banks of the river, the dragon panting beside her, and looking exhausted. With a muted pop, he turned back into a fish.
Xiulan stared at the blue sky. Tears welled up in her eyes.
“You guys alright?” Master Jin asked, staring at them both with concern. The fish flopped piteously and whined, as Master Jin offered her a hand up. She took it, still breathless. Her legs shaking, she slumped onto his side.
It was as if the world was holding her up.
“Yes, Master Jin. I think I’m very well.” She managed.
He squinted at her, looking her over with care.
“Well. if you’re sure.” Master Jin declared, seeming to find nothing wrong.
He let her go, and she stood on her own two feet. The shaking eased, and her breath evened out, as Master Jin humored Wa Shi’s pitous moans. Fussing over him indulgently as he played up his exhaustion.
Xiulan closed her eyes and turned her face to the setting sun, letting its warmth fill her body.
Another night in the house, with everybody else doing something. I was carving away, trying to get the perfect shape for the banjo. I was debating adding some embellishments onto it, or just keeping it simple. Probably simple. I didn’t know how well this would work quite yet. Today had been fun. Really fun, and I wished Meimei was here, so she could go on her own dragon ride.
“Oh, I’ll show you how to ride a dragon~” My mind filled in her amused voice, and the lewd joke that was sure to follow. I could see that damn grin.
I sighed wistfully, and returned to my carving.
“Master Jin?” I heard Xiulan’s voice, announcing her presence.
I turned to her, watching me with a smile on her face. The smile that hadn’t left since she had gotten off Washy.
It was nice to see her so genuinely happy. There were no bags under her eyes, no slightly downcast look. We hadn’t really talked too much about the valley since we got back… but she had been talking less and less about that with Meimei anyway, and it was just an excuse for them to do girl stuff together.
“No Tigger tonight?” I asked. She actually rolled her eyes, fondly exasperated.
“She wished to cultivate in privacy this night.” She informed me. “Would you like some tea?”
“Please.” I nodded, and turned back to the banjo.
I really shouldn’t have been so dismissive of her at first. So ready to believe that every cultivator would be some asshat ready to take… but most of my experiences with them had left their marks. You always remember the bad more than the good. The ass kicking at the beginning, the others stealing my stuff, Sun Ken, and Mister imposter.
But Lu Ri had given me back the money when he didn’t need to, and Lanlan… the image came to my mind of her head covered in flower crowns, giving shoulder rides to children.
The tea came back, as I was focused on my task. A cup of tea clinked down beside me, and Xiulan sat as well.
I thanked her, and stared at my banjo some more. I sipped my tea. I stared some more, my interest in the instrument fading. I’ll work on it more tomorrow.
I sighed, and put it to the side.
“Is anything the matter, Master Jin?” Xiulan asked. I paused at the question.
Shrugging, I told her the truth.
“Meh. It's lonely without Meimei at night.” I told her with a sigh. I could feel the slight surprise that came from her.
“I see... “She whispered, and after a pause, a pause that was just a bit too long, she spoke again. “Perhaps I could keep you company tonight?” It was laden with a double meaning, a breathy tone that set my blood pumping.
I turned to her in shock.
Silky hair cascaded down her back, free from her normal braids. Crystal blue eyes sparkled with warmth. The moon illuminated her face, casting it in a silver glow and highlighting the slight dusting of red on her cheeks.
My heart skipped a beat. Fuck, she was gorgeous.
I swallowed thickly at the words, low and laden as they were. My mind started stuttering, skipping between screaming with victory, and screaming with “don’t you fucking dare.”
What the hells? My heart was in my throat. Was this betrayal? Was I overthinking things?
She was looking directly at me. Her hands moved, and I found my eyes drawn to them as she reached behind her… and brought out the go board.
I stared at the board for a second blankly, until my eyes drifted back up to her face.
Amusement danced. Amusement, and a little bit of concern, as she wasn’t completely sure how I would take the rather blatant teasing, but was comfortable enough to try anyway.
“Oh? Is something the matter?” She asked, forging ahead. “How else would this one keep you company, Master Jin, aside from a rousing game of Answer-Go?”
The laugh bubbled up from my chest, spluttering and backfiring, before finally it forced its way out of my mouth. I laughed. I laughed hard.
It was less the fact that it was funny, because it was funny, a call back to the words I had given her that I only realised after could be misconstrued, and more the fact that Xiulan managed it with nearly a straight face.
Serious Xiulan, Young Mistress of the Verdant Blade Sect, cracking what could generously be called a lewd joke? Hilarious.
“You’re right. I do need your company tonight.” I managed to get out. “I guess I’m going to be answering a lot of questions then.”
“Yes. Senior Sister has a list of questions.” She informed me with mock seriousness.
“....she could just ask.” I said, amused.
“Senior Sister originally said the loser should take an item of clothing off.” She stated blandly.
Okay… that was a bit much without getting drunk off my ass. Her eyes trailed away, her slight flush intensifying.
“Answer-Go it is.” I declared.
I lost, naturally.
“....and that’s when it catches on the back of my pants, and I’m left there, swinging in the breeze with my ass out for the whole world to see.” I finished, telling her “my most embarrassing moment.” Lanlan’s shoulders shook. That particular story was from the before, tweaked a little bit because they don’t have jungle gyms here, but the end result was the same. What was once absolutely mortifying was now just as funny for me as it was for everybody watching.
I sighed with contentment. This had certainly taken my mind off things.
“Yes Master Jin?”
“Thanks.” I said, as earnestly as I could.
Her smile got just a little wider.
It was the middle of the day, and we were working on the road again when Yun Ren appeared, jogging to a stop.
“Meihua’s given birth! Everything is fine!” He shouted.
We were at Verdant Hill that night.