Travel through the Howling Fang Mountains was a dangerous task. Between the local Spirit Beasts, the unpredictable often Qi-charged weather and the Mountains themselves, going without a guide was generally foolhardy.
It was a bracing climate, Lu Ri decided. The fridgidness in the air nearly matched his Senior Sister’s gaze.
He brushed some of the snow off his hat, and fingered the hole where an icicle the size of a spear had managed to strike true.
Unfortunate. He liked this hat. It hid his eyes and face quite well, even if it was a poor fit for the climate.
He eyed his prize, as he crested another outcrop. Fangtip Fortress. Lu Ri could appreciate this place. It was stern and imposing, jutting off the mountaintop.
But already he could hear shouts and jeers even from this far away.
A Fortress of quiet contemplation it was not. This sounded like a war-camp.
Unlike a proper war-camp, the guards at the gate were relaxed. One had even turned around completely from his position on top of the wall to shout down at whatever was happening below.
Lu Ri paused at the place where a guard was supposed to challenge him. The man looked frustrated and bored, slumped against the wall and picking at his fingers.
“Merchant, here to—” Lu Ri began, but he did not even have time to get out his papers, before the guard waved him through.
How... lax. Lu Ri refrained from berating him.
He shook his head and entered the fort, heading toward the commotion.
“Zang Li, Zang Li, Zang Li!” several of the crowd chanted, as bursts of fire forced the other disciple he was sparring with back. The other boy was sweating, as Zang Li toyed with him, a look in his eyes that Lu Ri remembered well on the Inner Disciples that liked to toy with those they considered their lessers.
He paused, as he nearly put his hand on one of the disciples cheering to move him out of the way and intervene in the bout, as Elder Ge had instructed.
This was not his sect. It was not his place to correct them.
He had his mission... and he had found his quarry.
Zang Li, the Young Master of the Shrouded Mountain, was acceptably powerful, if an unpleasant sort.
The bout continued for three more exchanges. Zang Li gave the other disciple several blows that sent him staggering, before the last threw him into the fortress wall.
“I do not even need to use the Blade of Fire against the likes of you!” Zang Li taunted, to some groans, and more cheering.
The other disciple grimaced, as he held his burns, but through the scowl on his face, he bowed.
“Thank you for the pointers,” he grit out, the next words looking physically painful, “and thank you for restraining your strength.”
The courtyard laughed and jeered at the defeated man, Zang Li raised his arms in a gesture that was meant to look magnanimous, but instead seemed mocking.
“Well, that's one star on the rise. I can hear Kang gritting his teeth from here,” one of the men near Lu Ri muttered. “Trying to suppress him by leaving him off the Assault Team only made him stronger.”
Zang Li went off, seemingly to boast to some of the other disciples. Lu Ri stepped back from the crowd and considered the best way to get the man alone.
So instead, he watched. Although he had been waved in, he was still a member of another sect, deep in the heart of another. He would have to have some caution. Lu Ri was courteous enough not to go to the library, or take anything that wasn't his, though he doubted the Shrouded Mountain had anything of value to him.
Zang Li had retired to his room. Lu Ri was contemplating simply walking in, when he heard footsteps. A young woman, with a serving tray, a look of resignation on her face.
She swallowed thickly as she approached the door, her eyes darting left and right.
Lu Ri felt something like distaste curl in the back of his throat, but it was as good an excuse as any.
“Young Miss. I shall take that in for you, I have a report for the Young Master, in any case,” he stated simply. The woman nearly jumped out of her skin at his sudden appearance, relief and shock warring on her features as she considered his words.
“Ahh… umm, are you certain?” the woman squeaked, but Lu Ri was already taking the tray from her unresisting hands.
“Indeed. Run along back to the kitchens, now.”
“Ah, yes sir,” she muttered, bowing swiftly, and leaving.
Lu Ri knocked twice on the door.
“Enter,” a voice from within commanded.
And so Lu Ri did. He shut the door behind him, as the boy turned around with a smile, before it faded to irritation at seeing him.
“I thought I asked for the servers to be female,” he asked with narrowed eyes.
Lu Ri took in the boy. The red markings on his forehead that had still not settled from a recent bloodline activation. The sneering look in his eyes. The messy reports on his desk.
This was the one who had made him travel all the way up here?
“Well, answer me, servant—”
Lu Ri had been irritated for nearly six months.
There was a time to be polite, and Lu Ri was very much past that point.
The careful stops in his power that he had constructed for the Azure Hills were torn open. Qi filled the room, as he used his Senior Sister’s technique.
The Young Master in front of him froze, his annoyance fading to shock and fear.
“I require some questions answered. You will answer them.” It was a simple statement of fact. Though it would be a mildly dangerous prospect, so deep in this Young Master’s territory, Lu Ri was at least confident he could escape, should things turned sour.
Recognising his predicament, he did not try to run or scream. “Yes, sir,” the boy stated,
“Do you know a man named Jin Rou? Tall, freckles, brown hair,” Lu Ri asked calmly, as he took a step toward the boy.
The boy’s eyes flashed with recognition and hatred.
“Yes. I know a man named Jin. He attacked me without provocation—” the boy started, before Lu Ri cut off whatever he was about to say.
He cared little for his story. It was irrelevant.
“When was the last time you saw him?” His eyes bored into the boy’s and Zang Li flinched.
More anger crossed his face. “A town, I didn’t care to recall the name of.”
A lie. A flex of Qi, and the boy flinched.
“Verdant Hill,” Zang Li spat.
“Where did he go? Did he stay, or in which direction did he leave?”
The boy grimaced
“I do not know.” That was the truth.
Lu Ri considered the boy.
It was a shame this whelp did not know if Jin Rou left or not, but his own men would surely have a direction.
“Tell me everything you observed about him.” The command was met with a mutinous look, but the boy obeyed, detailing the brutal attack on his subordinates, and his eventual defeat.
“Why do you need this information? Is he some manner of criminal?” There was hope in this question.
Lu Ri did not deign to answer.
Absolute confirmation, from an eyewitness, that Jin Rou had been in the north of the Azure Hills. His men had truly done well to send him in this direction! How wonderful, to have a lead again! He would have to reward them greatly. And one of them had even travelled to the town! Perhaps he had already found Jin Rou?
Lu Ri was quite pleased, as he left through the front gate.
The rain poured outside their cave, thundering down from the heavens. It was a cold rain, thick and heavy, but it would stop soon.
The rain would hardly be an impediment, but it was cold and annoying, so, as his Great Master decreed, small breaks were necessary things.
‘For five days and five nights we toiled, tending to the fires, and infusing the liquid with our power. All of Fa Ram came together to see this task done, even Wa Shi set aside his natural inclination to feast, in order to bring us food,’ Bi De spoke, regaling his companions of the tale of creating maple syrup. ‘It was a wondrous endeavour. One I am forever glad I was a part of.’
Yin and Miantiao were both enraptured by the story, listening to his words.
‘The more we hear, the more I wish to sssee this place,’ Miantiao mused.
‘Yeah! It sounds like fun!’ Yin said, nodding her head, and setting her ears bouncing. ‘I want to meet Tigu and Xiulan. They sound like they’d be exciting to duel!’
‘Ever a one-track mind, my dear,’ Maintiao snickered. ‘But... we shall see Young Master Bi De’s home soon, I suppose. We are nearly to our destination.”
Bi De nodded, the mark in his mind’s eye. Their visit to Pale Moon Lake City had been swift. The massive city, home to over a million souls, had been mind boggling, but he had not truly taken the time to explore it. Just enough to confirm the location of a formation stone. Surprisingly, this one was in the city, jutting up from the middle of a plaza, with thousands of people walking past it every day.
A simple, blank stone pillar. Unassuming, and nearly forgotten.
Now, they were once more into the hills, travelling off the beaten path. It was rough terrain, very rough terrain, and Bi De did not envy any without Qi travelling in this direction. Having to weave around the hills would be a frustrating task.
Yet for them, it was little challenge. They walked during the day, and rested during the night, drawing ever closer to the last place Bi De wanted to see. Would it be worth anything? Or was it truly just a random mark?
Bi De did not know, yet he intended to find out.
And he, too, could not wait to introduce his new companions to his Great Master.
He took a breath, tasting the air as Miantiao did. The Qi was thin. Yet he could feel bits of it in the air and earth.
They paused to sup upon some jerky and rice. Paltry rations, yet Miantiao and Yin never complained, knowing little of the bounty that awaited them. Would they moan like Disciple Xiulan? An amusing thought.
Yet soon, their search came to an end. Five hills surrounded a smaller hill in the center at the marked point.
And within the center hill, a cave.
Bi De glanced around at the overgrown remains of tiles that showed that this place had once had habitation. A pentagram was carved above the cave. With all five elements written in the circle.
It had a foreboding presence. Wisps of air spilled out from the cave mouth before reversing, and a light, deceptively gentle breeze seemed to beckon them into the darkness.
A whispered invitation, like some great beast breathing in.
‘...is there anything in there?’ Yin asked.
Bi De focused. He took a breath, and searched for power in the earth. Down, down, deep down he looked, until he found it. Strange, and indistinct, and yet, there. Something old, of the earth, and yet not.
‘...it is deep. Deep, deep down in those caves, where neither the light of the moon nor the light of the sun can reach,’ he stated quietly.
Now, the question was, to proceed, or to go back?
He considered the cave. The days were growing shorter, and it was soon to be the harvest. It was not like this cavern was going anywhere. He would like to treat his new friends to the Glory of Fa Ram in full swing.
Yet was this not his mission? To attempt to decipher this mystery? The reason why it was made? What had happened, so long ago? Would giving up now, before one last hurdle, be wise?
The cave beckoned and repulsed in equal measure.
Yin shrugged. ‘Onwards, then!’ the rabbit declared. ‘We’ll see what it is, accomplish our duty, And then we’ll go to your Fa Ram triumphant!’
Bi De smiled softly at the rabbit, who was striding forwards with confidence. How thoroughly she had thrown herself into this task. How completely she had devoted herself to it.
Could he, the one who had started it, show any less conviction?
Their supplies were full enough.
So Bi De took a step forward, the silver of the moon wrapping around his body, as they descended.
Down into the deep.