Zhang Fei puffed and panted as he ran up the set of stairs for the second time. He was tired, he was sweaty, he was exhausted. But that, according to Master Bi De, was what he was supposed to feel. It honestly felt a bit good, to run so much, and strengthen his body. How to breathe properly. He could still feel the phantom sensations of wings, pushing his limbs into better positions. This was training. Like in the cultivator stories. He wondered if the Demon Slaying Orchid trained like this? Or maybe she lifted rocks! It was so awesome!
But the physical was only part of it. The rooster was quite fond of making Zhang Fei read. In fact, that had been his first lesson. A set of words that sounded a bit like they came from his father. “Healthy Body, Healthy Mind”, “Bravery without Temperance is Recklessness. Recklessness leads to Ruination.” Things like that coming from his mother and father made him roll his eyes, but coming from his Master? Well, maybe they did have a point. He even wrote while Zhang Fei practised, writing down what looked like an entire scroll’s worth of knowledge on pieces of paper, with surprisingly elegant writing.
A stoic, silent master. Even his father, who had looked a bit leery at the training, started nodding his head after he read Master Bi De’s writing. He seemed surprised at what it said, but it met with all the old folk’s approval. And they were hard to please.
His Master, as always, was waiting for Zhang Fei at the top of the hill, in the shrine grounds. ‘Pause, and consider’ he had said the first time Zhang Fei had gotten to the top, gesturing out over the rather stunning vista that could be seen from the tallest hill in the Gutter.
And so Zhang Fei looked out, over the gutter, and over his village, which looked so small from up here, while walking back and forth, and calming his breathing. Letting the cool breeze wash over his sweaty body.
A swift series of taps caught his attention, and Zhang Fei turned. He nearly missed as his spear was thrown at him, managing to grab on to the shaft, and twirling it. His Master gestured with one of his wings.
Zhang Fei grinned, and focused.
He approached with caution, rather than rushing straight in. The first time he had done that it ended poorly. Instead, he was fast, but watching for movement. He struck swiftly, but with restraint, so he could quickly pull his spear back to defend. It felt a bit wrong. He wished his spear had a longer blade, so he could slash with it better. Like a yanyuedao. Like generals used. But he had a spear for now.
Master Bi De dodged and weaved around his strikes with ease, but his eyes were calm and evaluating. Zhang Fei pushed forward, trying to use his mass to his advantage. The rooster cocked his head to the side, and allowed it, retreating slightly. Zhang Fei advanced until his Master stepped forward, and it was Zhang Fei’s turn to retreat.
They continued, as Zhang Fei’s strength began to flag. But he had an idea. He saw his master’s eyes narrow slightly, as he pulled his arm back further, an obvious wind up for a more powerful thrust.
He let it fly, seeming to thrust forward with all this strength. His Master, naturally, dodged to the side with a bare minimum of movement, when Zhang Fei pulled, turning the thrust into a wide slash. Surely this would surprise his Master--!
He paused, his spear still held out to the side. His master was no longer on the ground. The boy turned his head, and there, on his spear head, was his master. The rooster stroked his wattles, and inclined his head at the move, approving.
And with a flick of the wing that was stroking his wattles, Zhang Fei was bowled over by the wind alone, rolling along the ground.
He got up on shaky legs, grinning at his Master. The rooster nodded his head, and turned, patting the shrine’s edge, where a piece of paper sat, ready to be perused .
Bi De nodded his head in thanks to the woman who brought him a bowl of rice. The woman smiled, and nodded back. That was what most did, now. They were polite and respectful. Some even considered the debt so great that they waved away the silver coins he tried to give them, to pay for the paper he needed to try and impart his hard-earned wisdom onto Zhang Fei.
He wanted for nothing here, and would even be able to prepare more supplies, before he had to leave. He had but a bowl of rice from his Great Master left… and he knew where that was going. But today was a new day, and each day brought something new.
Bi De ate quietly, as he observed this new event. Today, the entire village was gathered, and preparing for practice. To practise for a festival.
Everyone, save for the bedridden, was assembled in rows and at their head stood an older woman, slightly hunched and grey-haired.
People were chattering to each other, while Bi De’s student was humming and rocking back and forth, completely oblivious to the attention paid to him by the females, who were whispering to each other and giggling.
Zhang Fei had many battles ahead of him.
Satisfied that everyone was assembled, the old woman clapped her hands, and quieted everyone down.
Then, a drum began to sound, and slowly, the older woman moved, leading everybody through the first moves of a dance.
A dance Bi De recognised. The dance that Hong Xian had performed for the festival.
But it was different. There were inconsistencies. There were some moves that were completely different.
Bi De wondered which version of the dance was the correct one. Or if there even was a correct one.
Bi De frowned, and stood, copying the movements as they repeated again. He studied each movement, and… and a few of the moves did feel off. A bit less complete than the version he had learned in Hong Yaowu. There were a few giggles from the crowd, and he paused, as he realised that everyone was looking at him, rather than the Elder.
He bowed his head in apology, as the dance began to go again. There were three more repetitions of the dance, and then they were concluded. The people began to disperse, and his student eagerly came to sit beside him.
He was eager to learn, but Bi De had something that he needed to know first.
He scratched a question into the dirt.
“Why is the village named “Correct Place 8””? he asked, and after a moment, Zhang Fei shrugged. “Never asked.” he admitted, and turned to his father.
“Hey, Dad! Why is the village called Correct Place 8?”
The older man was startled from his work, and frowned at his son.
“You’ve not heard the story?” Elder Fei asked, frowning. He pondered the statement with a bit of confusion on his face, before he seemed to come to a realisation. “I suppose you wouldn't have heard this one. We used to tell it every time a sheep got swept away, or a building got damaged, but praise the heavens, it's been over a decade, hasn’t it?”
The man thought for a moment longer, before settling in, and patting the ground beside him. Both of them sat. “Long, long ago, before men lived in these lands, the founder, the First Zhang Fei, was commanded by his master to build a village. Now... we don’t really know why he was sent out, only that he was, and with a location. It was a hard journey. They braved beasts and the elements alike. They traveled for many moons until they finally arrived here.”
Elder Fei gestured out across the land. The grass was a vibrant green with a slight blue tinge to it, and stretched off to the hills rising on either side of the sloped terrain. It was a desolate beauty. The ground had a bare covering of soil, before it gave way to solid rock. Only the hardiest of crops could grow here.
“Naturally, his clan and the settlers were rather disconcerted. Instead of lush farmland or forests for logging, they found a barren, grassy slope. But they were loyal to Zhang Fei and their lord, and none offered any complaint. None except his brother. He questioned Zhang Fei and their lord. Was he sure this was the correct place? So great were his questions and complaints that Zhang Fei got angry at his brother, for he was unnerving the people with his questions. He was so sure that this was the right location, he even named the village that. The proper place.”
“They built their village, and started on the tasks their lord asked them to do. But just as they were finally settling in, the hills rumbled, and down the Gutter came a flood so mighty that it washed the village away. The story goes that everyone survived, even though the flood towered over the houses. But well, it's a story. If we got floods that big, nobody would survive them. There was also a whole part of the story about the monsters Zhang Fei had to fight, but they didn’t destroy the village. I’ve only heard that part a few times anyway. Maybe Gran knows that one better, especially after this. We really do have a brave warrior now.” Elder Fei smiled at his son, and continued.
“Zhang Fei was unconcerned. A minor setback, and they had commands from their lord. Miraculously, the sign, the correct place, remained intact. Zhang Fei took it as a good omen.”
“They rebuilt the village, and again, the next year, it was flooded, and the buildings were swept away. But the people were loyal and determined. No mere floods would stop them. So again they rebuilt the village. And again it was flooded. But each time the sign survived, and each time it went back up in defiance. Seven times was the village washed away, and seven times was it rebuilt.”
“Zhang Fei’s brother still grumbled and he found fellow complainers, but they were silenced by the news that the lord was coming to visit. Zhang Fei was adamant that everything appeared perfect. That there were no floods, and the village was not destroyed even once, as to not doubt his master’s wisdom. But his brother played a trick on him, and added in secret to the sign. The number eight, to show how many times the village had been washed away, and how much hardship the people of the village had suffered. When the Lord came, and asked about the town’s name, Zhang Fei and the village told him of their hardships. When he heard their plight, the lord was said to have bowed once to Zhang Fei, so touched by his servant’s dedication.”
“With a wave of his hand, the ground turned to silver. His court came, with gifts of sheep for wool and meat and dogs to guard them. Through our hardship, we got everything we need. Riches and food aplenty. It's why we even bothered to live here in the first place, before the Magistrate came.”
“And that’s how it was named the eighth proper place. ‘Course we aren’t descended from that original Zhang Fei, if he even existed. Neither were our predecessors. My grandfather’s name was originally Dong Zi. But the leader of this village is Zhang Fei. So now we’re Zhang Fei. It's tradition.” Elder Fei concluded, staring out over his village.
Bi De considered the story. While it removed the theory that there may be more correct places, the interesting part of the story was that they had been told to settle here. So then, the shrines did not form around the villages? The villages formed for the shrines. Or at least some of them did.
How curious. And the story itself... The people had floods bigger than their houses. Great monsters they had to fight. They had no silver mines. They didn’t even have any sheep or dogs, until this ‘lord’ gave it to them. Was it some exaggeration... Or did this event actually happen? Some of the story, like some of the dance, was surely lost to time. They knew not what their task originally was, only that they had one.
Bi De contemplated this story, sitting in silence with Elder Fei and his student.
It was then that the hills began to rumble.
Zhang Fei’s eyes widened happily. His father saw his expression, and looked for a brief moment like he was going to scold him, before he sighed.
Bi De followed his student as he dashed to the rock gutter, which was twice as long as his Great Master was tall. Zhang Fei quickly rooted around in some manner of storage shed, and came out with a long, thin plank of wood. Another boy, slightly younger, came with him. Both were grinning eagerly uphill, as the rest of the village slowly gathered.
With a sound like three of Brother Chun Ke charging, a gush of water careened down the sluiceway. It travelled with force, filling the channel to half with fast flowing water. The boys waited for the new river to calm slightly, going from a raging torrent to merely a fast flowing stream.
With a whoop, the boys jumped in.
Bi De followed, running along the edge as the boys held fast to their planks, laying on their bellies as they shot down the sluiceway. Their laughter and shouts of joy echoed up from their play.
Bi De knew his Great Master would love this place. He would have to tell him of it, when he returned.
Zhang Fei, however, was not content to merely lay on his belly. His face a mask of concentration, he carefully gripped the edges of his plank… and stood.
He was wobbling. His eyes held just a slight amount of terror in them. But he stood. He turned his feet, and went from one side of the gutter to the other, riding a plank of wood.
His crazed laughter sounded out over the hills.
As they approached another village, one much smaller than the one upstream, he shifted his feet again, and rode the water to the side of the gutter, and hopped off his plank of wood to the cheers of “Torrent-rider!”. The parents, on the other wing, scowled mightily at him.
Bi De checked the water. It wasn’t as dangerous as he assumed. There were few rocks. He checked upstream, and realised another reason. It was going to take Zhang Fei several hours, if not most of the rest of the day, to walk back upstream. If it had happened any later in the day, it would have been long past nightfall by the time he got back.
The rooster raised a brow at his student. Well, if he enjoyed racing so much… he must be faster at getting back to work. “Work hard, play hard”, or so the Great Master said!
Bi De smiled at Zhang Fei. The boy seemed a bit confused, and then his face paled.
Both boys got back to the village in record time. It was quite amusing, chasing them back upstream.
And so the days continued. Bi De ended up staying for longer than the week. It quickly turned to two, as he watched the growth of the brave boy. As he watched the people of the village slowly stop jumping at shadows. As they held a feast, he sat at the head table. But all things must come to an end.
Bi De had completed his work. “Meditations on the Nature of Fa Ram” and a gift for the boy. That night, at the evening meal, he told them of his intentions to leave in the morning.
The people protested, and begged him to stay a while longer, but he could not. He had to continue.
So instead, supplies were gathered. His bag was refilled. But when he went to give Zhang Fei the gifts he wanted to give him, the boy was nowhere to be found.
Zhang Fei was not pouting. He wasn’t. He was not sad that his Master would be leaving soon. He had already taught him so much. But if he just stayed, maybe he could teach him more? There were so many things to learn! So many cool moves to practise!
But the Rooster had made it clear he would have to leave soon. And who was he to beg the guardian to stay? He had more missions from the Magistrate, surely. More people to save. And Zhang Fei held no illusions that he was strong enough to accompany the rooster on his journey. Not yet, at least.
So he sat in a secluded corner of the village, and… brooded. That was an adult thing, wasn’t it? Brooding.
He wiped at the tear that had leaked out. Big boys didn’t cry.
There was a cluck. Zhang Fei raised his head, and saw his Master. The rooster stood with a bundle on his back, and somehow managed to carry a bowl of rice.
He set the bowl down beside Zhang Fei, and pulled the bundle from his back.
It was wolfskin. A wolfskin vest. A vest, like his Master had. Zhang Fei bit his lip, as he pulled on the garment. He could see the fondness in his Master’s eyes. He choked, as tears welled up.
He ate the rice, his last meal with his master. It was the best thing he had ever tasted.
Finally, his composure broke, as he started to cry.
“Master… Thank you. Thank you for teaching this Zhang Fei.” His head went to touch the ground, to kowtow, to properly show his respect.
A wing touched his shoulder.
‘The greatest pleasure of a teacher is a good student.’
The voice was almost melodious. His eyes widened, as he heard his Master’s voice. He pulled his head up, and stared in shock. His Master seemed just as surprised, but swiftly buried it.
‘You are a righteous soul, Zhang Fei. you will surely find the path you wish to tread in this life.’
The boy swallowed thickly, choking down the sob that threatened to come out. From around his neck, he pulled a necklace, with a small silver pendant on it. He offered it to his Master. It wasn’t anything special. It was something his father had made for him for his birthday.
His Master allowed him to place it around his neck.
The rooster bowed to the student.
The morning of his departure was full of mist. It was damp, and unseasonably cold. A bad day to leave, but it was time. He received a hearty breakfast and packed the last of his things. It was a bit regrettable that he had none of his Great Master’s rice left… but Zhang Fei deserved it. One last meal together.
The people gathered, all of them standing in neat rows, in the early dawn light. The mist began to lessen, burned off by the rising sun. The sun that shone, illuminating both parties. They all were grateful. They all had received him with kindness.
So Bi De brought out his last gift. A mighty talisman, infused with his own Qi. Carved from the wood of one of the few scraggly trees that grew in this part of The Gutter, the letters dyed black, as they were upon the gates of Blessed Fa Ram.
Elder Fei received it.
Heads bowed in unison. Some seemed amused. Some seemed thankful. Zhang Fei had tears in his eyes, and snot running down his face.
Bi De took them all in, and lowered his head in thanks, returning some of their feelings.
It had been a minor distraction, in the grand scheme of things.
He bowed to the people, lowering his head in thanks, and in departure. There was a warmth, but also a melancholy. He knew not if he would ever see these people again.
….No. No, he would. He would come back and visit. They would see each other again. He would not forget these people so easily.
Bi De turned and left. His pack was replenished. His head was held high. And a shining silver pendant was around his neck.
“You know, people are going to be mighty confused when they see that.” one of the men said, gesturing to the sign.
Elder Fei shrugged. “Let them be confused. That sign is staying up. In the correct place.” he joked, rolling his eyes at the name of the village. Several people laughed, as the village slowly got back to work.
Elder Fei looked over all of it. The scars that were slowly healing.
A village that stood, after getting washed away seven times.
He turned to his son, who held his spear in his hand, staring out at the horizon after the rooster. His face was as stoic as he could make it. The image was ruined slightly by the snot still dribbling out of his nose, but he was still just a lad. A fine child, growing into a fine man.
Maybe, Elder Fei thought with a smile. Maybe this really was the right place.
Well, at least it would make for a fine story, whenever they had guests. It would certainly be something people asked about.
Elder Fei patted the top of the post, and smirked down at the elegant writing.
“Beware of Chicken” the sign proudly proclaimed.