There was a crack of thunder. The sound of droplets hitting the ground.
For the first time in a while, I was happy for rain. It had been hot and dry for a couple of weeks. The grass had even started to go a bit brown, far away from the house, as the heatwave intensified, but everything near the house was still good, with our specialized Dragon sprinkler system firing at full blast.
I was quite leery to ask him to actively control the weather, if he even could, but water from the river was fine. Most of our days had turned into sitting around with our feet in the river, or playing on the kung fu poles.
Not much had really changed since Meiling told me she was pregnant. I had started work on a crib, before I realised that that mostly wasn’t a thing here and our child would be sharing the bed with us for the most part.
I was a little worried that I might roll over, but I suppose having your kid right there in case of an emergency was a bonus. Still, I’d at least make something we could set them in.
At least with the way we were, sleep deprivation wouldn't be too big of a deal. I decided to test things out, and after the fourth day of operating on no sleep and not feeling any worse for wear… Well, I’d probably be fine. I’ll say my prayers for all the parents without superpowers out there. Cultivation is once again bullshit.
I ran my hand over my wife’s stomach. No bump yet. She caught the offending appendage, and laced her fingers with mine.
There was a flash of light. A massive crash of thunder. Chunky whined a bit, and Gou Ren started scratching his head. My Chunky boy didn’t like lightning much. He told me it gave him nightmares.
Xiulan continued to maintain her swords. Rizzo was sniffing at some kind of underwater plant, and Washy was asleep on a rock, not bothered in the slightest by the light downpour. I closed my eyes. I may not like getting rained on, but the smell was always nice.
“Master Jin. The hill is on fire,” Xiulan stated. I opened my eyes, and looked out. Sure enough, one of the further back hills, about three hundred acres away, was puffing.
“I shall ask Washy for his assistance, Master Jin, and take care of it for you,” she said, and started to stand up. That forest was mostly pine, and honestly, I had no grand plans for it.
“It’s fine. We’ll keep an eye on it, maybe build a firebreak… but we’ll mostly leave it,” I decided, looking out at the pillars of smoke rising from the hill. I’d certainly make sure it stayed contained, but a bit of burning would help that forest out in the long run. With the rain? It probably wouldn’t be too bad.
Xiulan looked confused.
“You live out in the grasslands, right? It’s just like them. It's supposed to burn. When the fire finishes, and the ash coats the ground… it comes back stronger than ever.”
Xiulan nodded her head, frowning at the fire.
“We’ll go take a look anyway.” Meimei let me up, and I put on my awesome new waterproof coat.
Xiulan followed after me.
Indeed, it wasn’t too bad. Not like the visions of hell I had seen in the before, where the smoke blots out the sun for thousands of miles. A small, quick burn, eating the needle mat, and getting the pinecones to open up.
I’d check back again throughout the day, but… things were looking okay. We watched it for an hour or two, and wandered through the ashes for a bit, watching the birds return and pick off the smoking carcasses of the bugs and smaller animals that had gotten caught in the flames.
“I’ll give it three days before this place is covered in grass again,” I bet Xiulan.
She declined to take me up on that offer, simply staring contemplatively at the fire.
When we got back, we had a visitor, to my surprise. There was a horse hitched outside the house, and a slightly miserable looking messenger at the table. He had the air of the recently soaked, cold and miserable, but was smiling a bit as Meimei got some tea into him.
He nodded when he saw me.
“You are most certainly Rou Jin,” the drenched-looking man declared. He reached into his bag, and pulled out a few scrolls. One I saw was from a Zhang Fei, another from the Lord Magistrate, and the third had a name I recognised. He spelled it strangely, but those were the characters he had chosen. Bi De.
“The Lord Magistrate gives his regards, and thanks you for lending him your servant. He has been a great boon,” the man said, bowing formally.
“How’d this one get to you, anyway?” I asked, holding up Big D’s scroll.
“Another messenger, sir. He said that a chicken paid him, but I think he was just on the drink. He certainly indulged after he delivered it to the Lord Magistrate’s offices.”
It took all I had not to burst out laughing at the mental image.
“You want to stay until the rain lets up?” I asked, and the man shook his head.
“If the road wasn’t what it was, or if it was any later in the day, I would gratefully receive your hospitality, Master Rou, Lady Hong. But If I set back now, I may yet make Hong Yaowu by nightfall,” the man declared.
He had some more tea, his horse got a carrot, and then he set off, cantering into the light drizzle.
Everybody else gathered. I lifted the letter, and began to read.
“Bi De, First Disciple of Fa Ram, greets his Great Master, the Great Healing Sage…”
A tale of heroism, of philosophy, of new friends. I had always loved reading stories. And this one… this one was a good one. The kind that deserves to be told.
Everybody sat around, riveted to the tale of the Torrent Rider, or of the Silver Rabbit and Glass Snake.
And me? I… I was proud of him. Proud of a chicken. Is this what fathers feel?
It wouldn't leave my head, as I read the awkward letter of a fourteen year old asking if he could either visit in the future or if I wished to visit his village, and go torrent riding. The answer to that was hell yes. Little dude was a badass. Awesome name too.
My mind conjured woodblock prints. A scroll. Starting with wicked Chow Ji, maybe. They had told me that one enough. Or maybe the first fox he caught?
But what would I call the tale of the rooster named Big D?
I thought about my sign, and snorted. Maybe something more epic…
Tigu walked with purpose through the forest, ruminating upon the letter. The drizzle had faded, and now everything was soaked. The others were preparing for the end of the day, but she was not.
The letter had been enlightening. It had captured her imagination. To see in her mind the great battles Bi De had. His journeys through the land.
The drive to see his ambitions realised.
She had been patient. She had been ready to wait. But… she had grown complacent. Patience was key, but it was all meaningless if one did not finally take action.
She arrived at the clearing with high ambient Qi. Deep in the forest. She closed her eyes, and entered the domain of the earth spirit.
She was polite. She was courteous. The earth Spirit’s grin faded as it beheld her, coming to something almost pained.
She bowed politely, and gave her request. She wanted its power. She needed it. She needed it for her goal.
And if the earth spirit still refused to help, then she would do it herself. Perhaps she had enough power. She could feel her Qi. Her image was set. She knew how everything connected thanks to Ri Zu’s lessons, which changes to make, but… something deep within her mind cautioned her. Warning her of the danger of attempting to do it alone.
An old memory of the twisted limbs of Chow Ji. She hadn’t thought much about his mutated and deformed body. Of course, she would never succumb to such a thing. But now, those images loomed high in her mind.
So she sat, and she waited. The earth spirit was normally playful, or amused. But tonight, she sensed Tigu’s conviction. One way or another, Tigu would be changed.
Finally, the earth spirit opened her mouth. The voice that came out was rough from what sounded like throat damage, and had a lisp from missing teeth. Tigu had heard muffled curses and giggles before, but never full words. The spirit grimaced as the action seemed to pain her.
“…Why?” she asked Tigu, her eyes full of some indescribable emotion.
‘I shall once more reclaim my rightful place!’ Tigu boasted.
The Earth Spirit raised an eyebrow, and sighed. It made her look positively ancient as her back hunched slightly, and she stared at the cat before her.
“If you ask to sleep with them again, they'll let you,” the Earth Spirit said, staring at the cat before her. “But… this isn’t really about that, is it?”
The words pierced her, but it was something Tigu knew. She probably could have just asked to get back into her Masters bed. To sleep, warm, comfortable and, above all, safe. Safe between her Master and the Mistress.
But instead, since the instant the Blade of Grass had spoken of it, the idea had captured Tigu’s attention. After speaking with Chun Ke, she realised it. After smoothing her relationship with Ri Zu… she knew it. Wanting to get back into her Master’s bed was just an excuse she used to stay up all night or use the feelings of longing to push herself further.
“Why do you really wish to be human?”
The bed was just an excuse. What she wanted was the connection. She wanted an end to the barrier imposed upon her by this form. An end to the others staring at her like she was lesser because of what she was. They tried. Her Master treated her as human. He always made sure to include her; to include all of them. He accommodated their forms, and made them things to try and bridge the gap. He tried to understand them. But there was always a slight disconnect. The brief pause, as he mentally adjusted to who she was. It was even worse with the mortals. She couldn’t stand how they looked at her, like she was just a cat, and not Tigu.
That… that was not acceptable. She wanted to do human things. She wanted to talk with the humans properly. She wanted them to know her, and not stare at her like she was a beast first, and Tigu second.
The thoughts of the ease at which humans moved. The thumbs. The skin. She wanted hair to braid like Mistress and the Blade of Grass. Clothes to wear, and look good in, unlike how silly the rooster and Chun Ke looked.
To sit with them on the veranda, and laugh with them, loud and wild. To be herself, full and unfiltered through Qi-speech and incompatible bodies.
‘To truly understand.’ Failed entreaties to spar, as she goaded and insulted to have others to interact with, and then acted like it didn’t bother her when they refused. She had been a fool. A fool, and no wonder they always said no.
“Can you not try to do that with your own body?” the earth spirit pressed. “Can you not train your voice until all can hear? Aren’t only the ones who accept you worth speaking to?”
Perhaps. But why was she trying to warn Tigu away?
“Being a human is a miserable existence,” the earth spirit declared. “It is much better to be as you are—”
‘Then why are you human?’ Tigu asked back.
The little brat of an earth spirit seemed surprised at the question, physically recoiling from it. She looked down at her form. A little girl. A child, full of cracks and gold.
The spirit stared at the stump of her arm. It had the beginnings of a hand made of gold upon it. She touched the flat pane of metal that had once been an eye, now a vein that took up nearly half her face.
The fight went out of her, as her eye went far away. The realm that they were in twitched. The sky cycled through storm clouds, flashing with lightning, to winter gales and spring showers.
Her body churned and shuddered, as something twisted inside the spirit, until she finally slumped.
“… it was the easiest to connect with them,” she said wistfully. “To see. To learn. To know. To live as they do, to feel the same aches and pains, the same emotions… I can’t remember much of it anymore. But for a time, I remember being so happy.”
She stared up at the sky, a tear running down her one good eye.
‘…it is better to let someone in, and be hurt, than to never let any in at all,’ Tigu whispered, quoting her Master. She didn’t know the meaning of that. Those that she let in… none had hurt her. But someone, or something had obviously harmed the spirit.
“What is joy, without sadness?” the earth spirit asked. “What is our time here, without others?” She looked upon Tigu once more. Both knew the reason why Tigu desired this change.
A complex series of emotions spread across the earth spirit’s face. Pity. Pride. Sorrow. Joy.
It settled on a fond smile.
“…this won’t be like Wa Shi,” she said finally. “He earned the form of a dragon. There will be a tribulation in this. This may be painful. You might even die.”
A dire warning. Tigu scoffed.
‘The Young Mistress of Fa Ram will face it, come what may.’
“What kind of fool wishes for a tribulation?” the earth spirit scoffed, smirking at Tigu.
‘One who thinks it is worth it.’ The Spirit laughed at her brazen audacity and conviction, her smile crooked.
“…Don’t die, okay? I’d be sad,” the earth spirit whispered. With a slight bit of hesitation, she extended her good hand.
‘This young Mistress thanks—’ Tigu cut herself off at the raised eyebrow. ‘Thank you, Spirit.’
Tigu pressed her forehead into the Spirit’s palm.
A soft stroke of her head— and then the earth spirit was gone. The sky was suddenly black. The ground, a featureless plain, devoid of the normal grass. The realm was empty.
Empty, save for the lightning that was approaching. It writhed with power. She could feel it singeing her fur from here.
One last chance to turn back.
As if it was even an option.
Tigu stepped into the lightning.
Surprisingly, at first it didn’t actually hurt. The light consumed her, it surrounded her, filling her with power and she grabbed hold of it. Taking it. Directing it. She knew what she wanted, and it would come to her.
The human form. But with her own tweaks. Enough to communicate. But she saw the better ears. The claws. The tail. All things that would aid her in the future.
The lack of pain didn’t last. Something stabbed into her insides. Her organs trembled in protest. Her bones creaked and groaned like sticks about to snap and shatter. Her soul felt like it was being flayed, like she used to flay the rats she hunted.
It was agony. It was terrifying, to have one’s body invaded by such amounts of Qi, to have lightning tear and try to pull your body and mind to pieces.
Tigu refused to scream. She refused to cry out, or let the pain overwhelm her. She faced it head on. She grasped her body firmly, even as the image of what she wanted to turn into began to fade away. It was all she could do to keep her mind focused on her goal, even as the lightning tried to snatch pieces of her away.
Time seemed to twist and stretch. Had she been in here for moments, or an eternity? Tigu didn’t know. All she knew was the pain, and all she had left in mind was her goal.
Her vision began to fade. Her body writhed. Yet she pulled herself further into the pillar of light, unflinching.
She was Tigu, the Young Mistress of Fa Ram. And she would endure this for a hundred years, if she had to, to realise her desires.
There was darkness.
For a brief instant, there was nothing. Only silence.
A smell slowly entered her nose. Charred plants and wet soil. It smelled… different. Maybe less intense?
Water dripped from a leaf. A brave bug began calling again. A frog followed suit, until everything in the forest began to sing and chirp.
It was wet. She could feel the dirt pressed into her face. Fingers clenched, digging into a fistful of dirt.
Tigu opened her eyes.
The blurry image slowly sharpened into smooth, pink flesh. She opened her hand in wonder, the dirt spilling out, and flaking to the ground. A bit of orange flashed in her vision, and she moved her hand to stroke it through a lock of long orange hair.
Slowly, she pushed herself up and looked around the clearing. The earth was charred and still glowing slightly from a lightning strike. Black ground emanated in a shockwave around her.
She… she had done it.
While she could not claim to be the first to change their form, she would claim this. The Young Mistress of Fa Ram would be the closest to her Master! Even Bi De could not claim that! A strange sound started to come from her throat.
She was… laughing?
She was laughing, as she doubled over, helpless.
“Tigu!” the Blade of Grass’ voice called out with worry, and moving fast. “Tigu, Where are you? Are you well—”
Xiulan cut herself off, as she burst into Tigu’s clearing, staring with wide eyes.
“…Tigu?” she asked.
The cat smiled languidly. “You…” Tigu coughed, as her voice came out for the first time. It sounded odd to her ears. “You dare not recognise this Young Mistress?!” she demanded with a smirk, pushing herself up.
It was a slight mistake. She wobbled for a moment, but managed to catch herself, her balance already coming to her. Xiulan was at her side, as if to catch her.
“Forgive this Xiulan. She did not recognise you without ears or a tail,” the woman apologized, her voice full of wonder.
Without ears and a tail?
Tigu frowned, patting her head. There were no ears, or any tail like she had wanted. She looked at her hand. Neither were there any claws, just slightly sharper than normal nails.
…those would have been useful. She looked down at the rest of her body, barely noticing as Xiulan took off her own outer shirt to drape it around Tigu’s shoulders. She grinned at the defined muscle she could see on her stomach and arms, and though there were two slight annoyances on her chest, at least she could still see her feet.
She… she was human. No. No, she was Tigu. Like the fish said, he was himself! So she was herself too!
She grabbed the Blade of Grass like the Mistress did, hugging her. It was nice to have another in her arms. Any surprise that the Blade of Grass felt was swiftly buried, as she hugged back.
“...you have truly transcended your limits,” Xiulan praised.
Tigu began to rub her cheek against smooth flesh. It felt nice as a cat, but like this?! Her skin was so sensitive! It felt amazing.
She wondered how it would feel to lay on the Master and the Mistress now?
Her course was set. New muscles flexed, as the Blade of Grass was lifted, and thrown over Tigu’s shoulder.
“Wha—? Tigu?” The woman asked, bemused, but not struggling, as Tigu shot off in the direction of home. Home. Home, and Master! She had to show him~!
They shot out of the forest, barging open the door and shooting up the stairs, carrying the Blade of Grass all the way.
“Wait—Tigu—what—!?” The Blade of Grass started to struggle, trying to stop Tigu, as she realised where they were going. Tigu dropped her, and slipped out of her grasp.
Tigu burst through the door, slamming it open, as both Master and Mistress looked in shock at her sudden appearance. Muscles coiled.
She soared through the air, as the Master registered her presence. Her Master’s entire body coiled, as shock and confusion warred. Clenched fists opened, and a brief moment of focus faded, as he opened his arms, and let her land safely in his grasp.
Warm arms clasped around her.
She grinned up at her Master.
“Look what this Young Mistress did, Master!” she preened.
“…Tigu’er?” her Master asked, his voice confused.
“Mm!” she confirmed, as he shifted to the side slightly. Tigu rolled off obligingly. “Mistress!” she switched to Her Mistress, and grabbed her too, pulling their bodies together.
She seemed shocked and bemused, as their cheeks rubbed together.
This felt so much better like this, rather than as a cat.
“Forgive me for letting her inside in this state—” the Blade of Grass tried, but Her Master just waved her off.
“…how did this happen, Tigu’er?” he asked, still confused.
“This Young Mistress wished to understand her Master better!” she declared. “....and sleep together again” she murmured.
…it had been a reason, in the beginning, and heavens above she had missed this.
Tigu yawned, as she snuggled in deeper. The brief surge of energy was spent. Her Mistress still looked nonplussed, as she gently tugged Xiulan’s garment closed around Tigu.
Her Master’s hand settled on her head. Tigu’s eyes started to flutter closed.
“I think we’re losing her,” Her Master whispered. “We’ll figure things out in the morning.”
Mistress brushed some of her hair out of her face, the gentle action amplified as a warm hand drifted over her cheek. She turned to the Blade of Grass. “If you’re standing there, and half undressed already, we still have room,” she said with a joking lilt.
“Mmm. The Blade of Grass is comfortable and soft,” Tigu confirmed, as sleep began to take her.
Xiulan spluttered for a moment, as Mistress waggled her eyebrows at her, before she huffed.
“Goodnight, Master Jin, Senior Sister, Tigu,” she said. Another hand patted her head, from Master’s side, as the Mistress made mock grabbing motions at the other woman. The arms were artfully dodged, and the Blade of Grass departed.
Master sighed, shaking his head, as he laid back down. Her back pushed into his chest.
“Stop teasing the poor girl,” he muttered.
Mistress huffed out a chuckle. “Something to get used to. Until last year my brother still woke me up to climb into my bed.”
Tigu’s head was pressed into Mistress’ breast.
Two bodies curled protectively around her.
Tigu slept the sleep of the victorious.