‘Is this it?’ Yin asked, as she stared around at the granite hills and rocky spires. She dipped a foot into the spring they were near, which occasionally belched out water. It was crystal clear and quite lovely.
They were in the center of the five points. The center of five smaller spiral formations, each with its own rock.
Bi De had expected to find something here. Something that could perhaps shed light upon this phenomenon. The hills here were certainly large, and a few had their own Stones upon them…. But they were by far the most degraded of the bunch. Most were missing entirely, and those that were not had their tops sheared off, or were canted and misaligned.
Yet as far as he could tell, there was no great beacon here. Nothing at the true center of the land. In fact, it had even less Qi than he thought there would be. The power of the land spirit was but a faint echo here.
‘We split up,’ he decided. ‘We shall search for anything with the character for ‘fire’ upon it.’
The only legible thing they had found. It was faint and worn, but one of the pillars did have the word ‘fire’ etched into it.
His companions nodded their heads, accepting his request.
And so they set off, combing the area. Their legs were strong, and their eyes sharp. Surely, they could find something. But after a day of searching, it was in vain.
There truly was nothing special here.
‘Sssome of the rock here is… Odd. black, and streaks of yellow sulfur. One of the caves had minerals caked onto the walls.’ Maintaio mused. ‘I know not what it means, but it is strange, to have such things in granite caves.’
Bi De thought upon it. His experience in the world was too lacking to tell if something was amiss.
The spring that they were near spluttered for a moment. It coughed, and there were a few anemic bubbles that formed.
Mildly interesting… Yet Bi De could not say if it was truly strange.
‘So… what now?’ Yin asked, her head cocked to the side. ‘Are we headed to the strange mark? Back to your Master?’
Bi De considered the question. He had not truly found anything of value yet. His curiosity spurred him onward, even as his heart told him to rest for a while first.
Miantiao stroked his chin with his tail.
‘Thisss one does know of a dance, to the south west. My Master spoke of a woman there who danced?’ Miantiao offered.
Several different directions. Well, it wasn’t too big of a detour, and if they found nothing, then Bi De would turn back. Turn back home, for a moment, to reassess, and gather supplies again. Travelling all this way only to end up with more questions than he had in the beginning.
He shook his head, and prepared to rest. He offered his energy to the land… but found nothing. There was nothing to take his power here. Maybe a few small motes and sparks… but other than that, it was empty. With a sigh, he closed his eyes. Yin wandered over to slump against him, and Miantiao looked at the stars with him.
‘We ssshall have to mark thisss location. I know how some of these minerals may be used to give pigment to glass and clay.’
Bi De turned, interested.
‘Indeed, sulfur iss a mossst pleasing yellow, when treated properly…’
He listened once more to a master that had absolute passion for his art. Though Bi De himself held little enthusiasm for the pots, he still gave the old snake his full attention.There was so much he did not know of this world.
His sleep was disturbed by a dream of water being thrown thousands of Li into the sky, and then rumbling down the hills.
He chuckled, when he awoke to the little spring spitting in futility, the droplets barely clearing the water.
They made southwest with haste, and there, as Miantiao said there would be, was a village with a shrine.
A village that seemed to be gearing up for a festival, and a dance.
He marked another point on his map.
“Are you sure about this?” the merchant had asked, when he saw their destination. “The Ash Forest is beyond those hills. Mighty dangerous place, the Ash Forest.”
Bi De nodded his head. The man sighed, but held out some provisions with a small smile.
“Well, was good to meet you. Thanks again, for taking care of my cousin, yeah?” The man offered his respect. Sister Ri Zu’s teachings had come in handy. All three members returned the gesture.
The merchant nodded, and went on his way.
‘It appearsss your legend grows, Bi De,’ Miantiao stated with amusement. ‘Who thought talesss and stories would have usss received so warmly?’
Indeed. Whispered tales had spread through merchants and caravans. With those tales and His Great Master’s servant’s paper, they were welcomed into villages, even villages that were not under the leadership of the man. Bi De had been to several towns, and none seemed as well managed, nor were their guards as vigilant as the one in Verdant Hill. Truly, the Magistrate was worthy of being His Great Master’s servant.
‘The last place was fun,’ Yin said with a smile. Indeed, they performed their dance on the longest day, instead of the longest night.
Yin had enjoyed herself greatly. She had a cloth scarf around her neck, a gift from a dancer girl, who performed their variation of the dance for them.
Most seemed amused at their presence. A rooster, a dancing rabbit, and a snake that made fine vases.
‘The center again, hummm?’ Miantiao asked, ‘I wonder if we shall find anything this time?’
Bi De did not know. They had found more formation stones, as similarly illegible as the last ones, and guesswork had led them in this direction. Last time, Bi De had gone around in the spirals, searching for the proper way to construct the formation. This time… well, they were passing by it anyway.
Now, they were headed for the center. For in the center of the Ash Forest.
‘Shall we?’ He asked his companions. They nodded their heads. Well, this last check, and then they would return home.
Bi De could not wait until he could introduce them to Fa Ram.
Together, they ventured into the forest.
Their camp was surrounded. It was an awkward conundrum, as Bi De did not realise that things this large could move so quietly until it was too late.
Bi De held his head high, as the Blaze Bears circled around their party. Yin bounced on her heels, her eyes focused, while Miantiao just looked sad. He closed his eyes, and uncoiled from his disciple, to lend her better movement.
‘You dare trespass into our Ash Forest? On our Sacred Ground?’ one of the beasts rumbled. ‘Interlopers. We shall cook you, and dine upon your flesh tonight.’ His voice was a guttural snarl, as he beheld them. The others growled in agreement.
The ambient temperature rose. Fire began to spark and burst off the Spirit Beasts, who were not taking kindly to trespassers upon their land.
‘I bid you stay your claws and breath. We do not desire your resources,’ Bi De attempted.
The bears snarled louder. ‘Lies!’ one roared.
Bi De sighed. He had been warned of the beasts, yet he did not expect them to be so zealous. They acted as if this was their Fa Ram. It might very well be.
‘This Bi De apologises for trespassing. Is there a gate we may visit, so we may enter properly, and pay our respects to the Lord of this place?’ Bi De tried again.
This caused some of the bears to sneer. The largest Blaze Bear rose to his hind legs and roared, fire streaming forth from his mouth. The rest began to spark and ignite
Bi De sighed.
The Spirit Beasts flinched as Bi De’s Qi rose, surrounding his body in a halo of silver light.Yet numbers made them bold. The Sun formed around Yin, her Golden Armor blazing with the Sun’s light. Miantiao let out a rattling hiss, his one eye as sharp as shattered glass.
Yet the bears did not back down. The rest rose to their hind legs, and fire erupted from their bodies.
‘Come on, you assholes. I’ll beat yer teeth into the backs of your skulls,’ Yin muttered, her eyes flicking around, and her body loosening.
‘Language.’ Miantiao muttered half-heartedly.
The Bears roared, and the battle was joined.
‘We thank Great Master Bi De for his generosity and restraint!’ Several bears choroused.
‘Now, such a thing will not happen again, will it?’ Bi De asked the bear with several missing teeth and a black eye.
‘No, Master Bi De.” The bear whimpered, rubbing his claws together. The rest of his fellows choroused the sentiment.
The bears were seated in varying poses of defeat, slumped against trees or, in one unfortunate’s case, embedded head first in the ground up to his waist.
Yin bounced happily. It had been a fine strike.
‘We are not unreasonable. You have declared yourselves guardians, so I would ask that you escort us to our destination.’ Bi De offered them face.
The Bear looked mutinous for a brief moment.
Then Yin casually pulled the stuck bear from his hole.
‘Of course, Master Bi De, our Ash Guardians will guide you where you need to go!’ the bear simpered.
The Bear led on, and they were escorted through the Ash Forest. It was a vibrant place. The trees were healthy and strong on a level that Bi De didn’t know outside of Fa Ram, and this was without the bountiful Qi that flowed through it. This meant that this growth was purely from the richness of the soil. Bi De would have to collect a sample for his Great Master.
The lack of Qi did raise many questions. The bears had described it as sacred, but there was a great void here. An absence of Qi.
Yet even in this deprived place, Blaze Bears stayed. Stayed in greater numbers than he thought there would be.
Five had been defeated. His eyes tracked to another, who took one look at Bi De, froze, and fled.
The other bears laughed. ‘Cowardly Paobu,’ one of them chuckled. ‘Went out into the world, and then last year he returns, screaming about monsters wearing the skin of men.’
Bi De watched him go, before turning to the other bears. ‘You described this place as sacred.Why?’ he questioned.
The bears all looked at each other.
As one, they shrugged.
‘Don’t know. It just is. Every Blaze Bear Knows it. Even though its got no Qi, even though its got not much to eat. This place is home.”
They continued in silence.
Bi De frowned at what they had said, and Yin looked equally troubled, glancing at the sky for a moment.
‘...just home, huh?’ she muttered.
It took them another two days to reach the center of this place. The true center of this part of the formation.
There was nothing.
There were no pillars. No formations. No rocks arranged strangely. Just like the other place. Bi De sighed at the lack of progress.
‘Well, we shall be out of your sacred forest tomorrow.’ Bi De stated. All of the bears relaxed, huffing happily.
Bi De offered his power to this worthless, qi deprived place.
And brushed up against something.
His eyes closed.
It was a lush, impossibly vibrant forest, full of fruits, flowers and berries. Even under the light of the blessed moon, even with snow on the ground, things bloomed and grew, uncaring of the frost.
A great bear tended to this garden. Her fur was a verdant green. Her eyes were soft and loving. Her cubs gamboiled around her feet and claws. She approached a tree, one of the giants that were bigger around than his Great Master’s coop, and wrapped a single paw around it’s mighty trunk, plucking it out of the ground with a gentle yank. Its roots came up clean, as she wandered off with it. Bi De followed. She wandered into a clearing. There stood a stone twenty Li high, spearing into the heavens, and covered in a thousand inscriptions. Inscriptions that were blurred, but he could see one clearly. One character that stood out.
The bear planted the tree. The ground moved aside without a single noise of protest, as she stopped to observe the massive edifice.
She licked her cubs as she smiled at it.
It was nearly time. But.. time for what?
Energy gathered. The Bear chuckled, as her children danced and swayed.
But.. something was amiss. The She-Bear frowned. The flow of energy wasn’t supposed to do that--
The giant stone suddenly cracked. Ominous orange lines flowed through it, pulsing like a demented heartbeat.
The She-Bear was on her feet in an instant. She threw herself toward her cubs, screaming for them.
She barely managed to interspose her bulk between them and the stone.
The stone that exploded, throwing pieces of itself across the land, and shattering the tops off mountains with the violence of it.
The world burned.
She burned with it.
She was a creature of growth and life. The fire found a perfect offering.
It ate. It consumed. It fed upon her, even as in her last thoughts she prayed. prayed for at least one drop of her children’s blood to survive.
Her prayers were answered in the cruelest way.
A single drop of blood did survive. A single drop of blood, tainted from the flames.
Four little bears, one for each lost cub. They crawled out of that drop of blood, and into a world of ash.
They did not remember their mother. But… They remembered some things.
The first Blaze Bears went forth. The first Blaze Bears brought back seeds.
He gasped as he awoke, his heart pounding in his chest. There was lingering sadness, regret, shock, and pain. Yin was curled up beside him.
Wood to fire—
His eyes widened. Small geysers, spitting, and nearly dead. Rocky hills.
He scrabbled, retrieving his map. Miantiao, who was instructing one of the less ornery bears on how to properly fire pottery, turned to the sudden movement.
To Bi De’s surprise, the Bear looked receptive to what was being said.
Bi De, with a shaking talon, drew out the rest of the formation.
The rooster swallowed thickly.
‘Good morning, Bi De, how wasss your resst? The snake questioned with a smile, even as Yin stirred.
Bi De did not answer. The snake slithered around, to glance at what Bi De had done
Miantiao’s eye widened.
‘Wha-what issss thisssss?’ Miantiao asked, his sibilant sounds drawn out in shock.
‘What’s what? What’s going on?’ Yin asked, staring confused.
Bi De stared. Miantiao’s tail reached out, tracing the formation, and Bi De’s notes.
The north was fire. Where they were now was wood. Pale Moon Lake, Metal.
Two other empty spots, with their corresponding symbols.
All five elements. An empty spot in the center.
‘Just what was this for?’ Bi De asked, staring at the massive portions of land that had been converted.
Shock, surprise, this wasn’t supposed to happen.
He tapped the spot on the map, near Pale Moon Lake. One last investigation, to see if that mark was even worth his Great Master’s time.