Lu Ri sighed as a young man ran past, shouting apologies at nearly running into him. A part of him flared with anger, while the rest instantly calmed that part. He was merely irritable from a lack of progress. He was absolutely no closer to finding the wayward cultivator than he was when he returned to the sect.
Oh, the trail led to the Azure Hills, as he had last discovered. But that was it. That was where the trail ended. Jin Rou entered Pale Moon Lake City... and then seemed to disappear into thin air.
At first he thought he was right in his original assessment. That the journey to these hills was a mere passing distraction to the young cultivator, before he immediately returned to the Howling Fang Mountains or Yellow Rock Plateau. Yet as he searched these areas, there turned up no sign of him either. No caravaneers talking about a cultivator helping them out of a difficult situation, no more stories of fleeing from spirit beasts… nothing. The methods he had used at first were turning up blank. And he doubted he would find any tales in this province, as there simply weren’t any spirit beasts of note. And even if there were, all any could talk about was the “Demon Slaying Orchid” who managed to kill some manner of bandit. The discourse drowned out all others.
So he was back to where he started. In the Azure Hills, in Pale Moon Lake City. He disliked both of these places.
First, it was the discomfort. The entire area was uncomfortable. Lu Ri had never been to an area so starved in Qi before in his life.
He felt like he needed to breathe more heavily to get the air he needed. He had to eat more food, else he felt like he was starving. It was like being in the middle of a desert, or at the top of a mountain for a mortal, instead of in a relatively lush, fertile land.
The constant, slow feeling of wrongness and discomfort made him irritable. He knew that his patience was fraying in this land.
The other reason... was mostly his own fault.
Elder Ge had told him to be discreet, and yet the first day he was in Pale Moon Lake City, he caused a commotion. When Lu Ri had approached the quaint city walls, there was a great uproar. A Guard Captain started to shout in shock as a harsh buzzing sound echoed out, followed by the sharp cracks of splintering stone.
Curious, Lu Ri approached, to see the people standing nervously, and a man pulling at his collar, to reveal a palm-sized medallion of cracked and splintered stone. Stone Lu Ri recognised instantly.
Heavenly Ascension Stone.
At first, he was baffled at the inclusion of such talismans. When cut and refined, nearly every sect and tournament used large, thick slabs of Heavenly Ascension Stone to measure cultivation. Placing one’s palm onto it, and channeling Qi would give a visible representation of the level of one’s cultivation, allowing sects to flaunt their prodigies, and for the benefit of the crowds. They had to be large, otherwise they would crack from the power running through them.
But instead, necklaces? And some manner of vibration formation carved into them? With the stones so small, any in the Initiate’s realm would be able to set the stones buzzing just by getting near! They would have been absolutely useless!
Yet as he pondered in confusion, he remembered that he was in the Azure Hills. He comprehended their purpose. Indeed, they would buzz for any Initiate. In such a Qi starved and weak land, that was the whole point.
It would allow the mortal guards to notice cultivators or Spirit Beasts. With the ambient Qi so low, they were made to be sensitive. This method was quite superior to what most guards in the wider Empire had.
Lu Ri mentally raised his evaluation of the craftsmen of these hills. Such ingenuity should be praised.
Yet this sensitivity was a double edged sword. They could likely only detect up to the profound realm without starting to crack. If any above that level approached without carefully controlling their Qi, then this would happen. And to detect and warn of larger and larger amounts of Qi, the size of the pendant would have to exponentially increase, and it would be buzzing constantly from the ambient Qi. Learning to discern the normal hum from a slightly stronger one would be difficult for a mortal.
That, and in such a poor land, they were most likely prohibitively expensive.
Lu Ri had destroyed two of them in ignorance and set the guards on high alert.
How utterly foolish and unacceptable. The Founder’s writings were most clear on what to do in this situation, and so he enacted them immediately. Drawing his power as small as he could make it, he advanced into the city, and arranged a meeting.
At least His Imperial Majesty’s Lord Director of the Azure Hills had been most understanding after he had been reimbursed. “Sect Business” and the Emblem of the Cloudy Sword had been enough for the aged mortal.
The only good thing about this place was that he was getting very good at suppressing his own cultivation. The Founders had labelled it a necessary skill. There were no more accidents, but the feeling of tension, and suppressing his strength just added to the slow grind of irritation.
He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Time to start over. A deeper examination into the Azure Hills, in search of Jin Rou. He would have to refine his plan to search, if he was still here. He would have to send word back to Elder Ge, and he would likely have to go through thousands of records. It was not a task he was looking forward to, yet he would complete it all the same.
But first… he looked mournfully at a teashop. The teashop, the most exclusive place in Pale Moon Lake City.
It was the only place he had managed to find some decent tea, and even some food with a bit of Qi in it. Terribly overpriced for what they were, yet he found himself in dire need of a fortifying drink before he started on the records.
The small stone near the entrance buzzed, and he was promptly received by the master of the establishment, and invited to a private room.
“You honour us by returning to our humble teashop, Master Cultivator,” the man in charge greeted him with a polite bow, a line of servants waiting to attend to him. As far as they knew, he was just a wandering cultivator. “We have something special today, if it pleases you.”
Lu Ri, nodded his head in acceptance, wondering what could be special here.
A woman came in holding a small pastry, and a thimble full of golden liquid. Carefully, the woman poured the liquid over the pastry, and used a small spoon to make sure all of the liquid had been distributed.
“It is known as Maple Syrup. A new product from the illustrious Azure Jade Trading Company. Please, enjoy,” the Master of the teahouse bid him.
Lu Ri picked up the pastry, and examined it for a moment. A touch of Qi was coming from it. How interesting, for this place.
He placed it into his mouth, and his eyes widened marginally, before closing in pleasure.
The pastry itself was largely inconsequential, but the golden liquid on top was very good. Wood and Fire Qi. Invigorating, and slightly warming, complementing the sweet and savoury liquid. It was a bare drop, and yet, it was quite delicious.
He savoured the taste, chewing slowly.
All too soon, it was gone.
“It does please me,” he stated simply, as he took a sip of his tea. He let the irritation ebb off his shoulders. Indeed, he did need a good cup of tea and a pastry. He was already refreshed!
Lu Ri remembered how many records he would likely have to go through, and how much longer it would likely take.
“....I would have another,” he declared, taking out his coin purse.
Bi De examined his map closely, looking at the marks he had placed. The formation had begun to develop on the map. Spirals. Each shrine, when connected, formed some form of swirl, all seeming to head in the same direction. He was quite close to a revelation. Unless he missed his mark, there would be something around here. Something soon. While the villages formed a spiral, or the beginning of one, Bi De was going to be searching the center of the spiral. He would likely find another village here, but when he asked, none knew of any such village having ever existed.
How curious. He rolled up his map, and hopped off the top of the caravan, letting out a cluck. His speech was... unreliable. He thought he had a breakthrough, but more often than not, nobody understood him unless he wrote. As was the case with his current conveyance.
“This is yer stop, then?” a woman asked, fidgeting slightly. He nodded his head. This was where they parted ways.
“...thank you, for fixing the axle. Are yeh sure there's nothin’ we can do?”
Bi De shook his head. It had been a simple task, to cut down a tree with his spurs, and fashion it into a proper axle. Reinforced, so it would no longer break upon the rough roads. His Great Master’s skills were once again a boon, and he had learned well.
“Bye-bye, Mr. Chicken!” a child called, waving happily to him.
The rooster inclined his head.
‘May the heavens smile upon you.’
The woman and child squinted and tilted their heads, not fully comprehending. But they seemed to get some of it, because they returned his bow, and their cart continued on its way, as Bi De began his walk into the wilderness.
Hopefully this would be as easy as the bear he slew. It was large, for a normal bear at least. And quite mad from eating the flesh of men. He put it out of its misery swiftly, and brought news of the creature’s defeat to the nearby village. It had a shrine… but he did not think it was a part of the formation. It was too divergent in location.
In any case, he had brought out his paper that contained the symbol of his Great Master’s servant, and stayed for a brief celebration. The father and the son had the same names, but they did not dance at the solstice.
An interesting conundrum.
His feet carried him onwards, as he began to pick up the pace slightly, simply jumping from one hill to the next, traveling for some hours, until he neared the location. He slowed his pace once more, travelling through the forest on foot.
He took in the air. There was a bit of a shift. There was more Qi here than normal for this area.
He crested the hill.
Surrounded by trees in a clearing, and illuminated by the rays of the afternoon sun, was a large, jagged pillar of rock. But it was not something to be dismissed, not something natural. It looked like it had been planted there. Stabbed deep into the earth, and surrounded by smaller stones, all radiating off in another spiral. It was covered in faint indentations and inscriptions, but they were too worn off to accurately inspect. Instead, it had been claimed by nature. Moss and ivy crawled upon it, this lone pillar pointing towards the sun. He felt no Qi from it. No feeling of energy or life. Just an old monument.
He studied the stone intently, but there was nothing he could discern, from the old pillar. He would need one more intact.
Bi De marked this location on his map, and continued. He took to the air, this time. Out of the middle of the wilderness, to the next location. To another village.
He sighed deeply, as he came upon it. The burnt out husk. This one had been attacked. Attacked long ago, judging by the massive rents in the wood. Rents that Bi De recognised, from his horrid adversary. The bastard and thrice-damned Sun Ken had visited this place.
Its people had been slaughtered. Its coops destroyed, its Shrine of Fire burnt to the ground.
He wandered the village, with his head bowed, until he happened upon the burial mound.
The burial mound with fresh cut flowers on it. Laid carefully, and lovingly on the graves. Did one still live here…?
There was a rustling. Bi De turned, and beheld a rabbit. Her fur was white as snow. Her eyelashes were long, framing wide orbs.
A fetching creature to be sure, and quite beautiful, even with her eyes narrowing. The rabbit approached, and laid new flowers on the grave.
She turned, glaring at him, regal and imperious.‘Who the hells are you?’