Bi De sighed, as he completed the paperwork. Really, if he had known how much there would be, he never would have become what he was. He leaned back in his seat, a simple wooden thing, staring around at his office. It was an enormous room full of papers and scrolls. Outside, there was an entire wing of the palace dedicated to this.
Bi De shook his head and sighed again, fiddling with his brush. It neared the page, ready to doodle, before he remembered that it was important. Frustrated, he stood. Sometimes, when it was like this, he missed the old days, when it was just him and his shovel.
His men outside saluted him as he passed, their armor made of glimmering Pale Moon Ore.
His feet took him in the same direction they always took him when he felt this way. Out of the inner courtyard and out into the gardens, following the sound of music.
He smiled, as he gazed upon the scene. Of the woman, playing on her pipa, the old instrument twanging pleasantly. He just stayed there, and let peace wash over him. Eventually, the woman noticed her visitor. She turned to her friend, and grinned a grin full of teeth, her eyes as pure and blue as the skies above.
Bi De pulled back from the crystal as the vision ended. It flickered fitfully, the light pulsing down from the ragged edges where he had struck it from the wall, the extended portions looking slightly like jagged lightning bolts, a slightly different hue than the rest of the crystal.
This was little like his Great Master’s crystal, which was so neatly organised. Everything was jumbled together, such a chaotic blend of thought and emotion that he had trouble parsing it all while he was viewing it. It was like he was the man in the recording. He preened his feathers, considering the crystal further.
The time after exiting from the cave had been tense, but other than that first night of exhaustion, his strength had seeped back into his bones as they ascended. He still was not back to perfect fitness, but the light of the moon was most invigorating, allowing them to travel at speed back to Pale Moon Lake city.
There was a rustling sound, as Miantiao and Yin entered back into their temporary residence.
‘Anything?’ Yin asked him.
‘Nothing.’ Bi De shook his head. ‘Yourselves?’
Miantiao hissed in irritation. ‘No. There were no murals, no markers… Swimming under the lake yielded no signs of the fall. Thisss issss a mossst vexing conundrum. It makes little sssense, if I am honessst.’
The snake tapped his tail against his chin. ‘From the visions of this crystal, and our own search, someone far in the past crafted a formation that was used to empower... something. This ritual then went wrong, unleashing a calamity of great power. It devastated the land, changing every element one step forward in the cycle of creation. Thisss is all things we have seen with our own eyesss. The evidence is irrefutable.’
Bi De nodded in agreement, while the snake uncoiled himself from Yin, continuing to speak. ‘Yet what I do not understand is the lack of records, and it has bothered me. Why only does this one place, in this far off corner of the Azure Hills, this one crystal tell a tale of calamity? The Dance of my Massster, of Hong Yaowu, and every village we journeyed through… they remember this dance, yet why do they not remember why they dance it?”
The snake slithered around the room in agitation, pondering this. ‘Why do they not remember the sky falling, and the earth being torn asunder? Would not such an event burn itself into their memories? Would it not be passed down through the generations, just as they remember their stories?’
Both the rooster and Yin frowned. ‘Perhaps that part of the story was lost, somehow?’ Yin asked. ‘I have been alive for eight years, and it already feels so long. I cannot imagine what a hundred or even a thousand years would do.’
‘Or perhaps we did not ask the right questions? In The Eighth Correct Place, their history said how the floods could sweep away the entire village in an instant, and it was dismissed as legend. Perhaps other places will have legends like this?’ Bi De mused.
Miantiao sighed. ‘So we know what happened, and what the formation was for. But not why it was destroyed, or how.’
Bi De stroked his wattles. ‘The only other place I could think of with such records is the Palace Grand Archive, which the great Healing Sage says collected a great amount of scrolls when it was constructed. It is not even an hour's journey away… but we can hardly just waltz in the front door as we are.’
They looked down at their bodies, and their distinct lack of human looks.
‘...we could get a cloak and stand on top of each other?’ Yin asked, and Bi De chuckled at the amusing image.
Miantiao snorted, stretching out his body like an exceedingly long neck. ‘I shall be the head? Else we shall be very short.’
Yin pouted at them for their amusement. ‘Or we could just sneak in at night.’
Bi De considered this for a moment. There were some disadvantages to this form, but if they snuck in, they would hardly know where to look. There would be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of scrolls in the Grand Archive. While he did still have His Great Master’s Servant’s letter, it would attract a great amount of attention, should they decide to go in the front door. The crystal they carried was both valuable and in need of repair, yet they had little money.
There was little more that they could do, for now.
He looked to his companions. They had not complained at all, not a single moment over the entire length of the journey. Even now, they were ready to slink through a city, to search high and low for the answers to the questions they had.
Sometimes, all you need is patience.
No, now was not the time to continue as they had.
They had found part of the answer. They had mapped the formation. Now was the time to reassess. To deliver their treasure home, and beg the aid of his Great Master and fellow Disciples.
‘In the end… is it truly so urgent?’ Bi De asked. ‘The formation has been like this for thousands of years. We shall seek counsel on this matter, and with it, a new path forward.’
Two heads turned to him. Bi De held his head up proudly.
‘We shall return to my home. We shall return to Fa Ram.’
It was so odd, retracing his steps. Heading north. Heading home. He still felt a bit like he should have attempted to find more answers. To keep on striding forth on his own.
He dismissed those thoughts. To forge ahead blindly was foolhardy, especially after what he had learned. He had more friends and allies than the two with him.
They travelled quickly, striding over the hills and bypassing villages, barely stopping.
So excited was he, and so direct was their pace that they passed Verdant Hill and Hong Yaowu entirely.
Bi De would greet them later.
Instead, they came out from the forest onto a changed land. The road to Fa Ram, once dirt, was paved more finely than Pale Moon Lake City’s. Every five paving stones, there were vines and flowers carved, light scratches of patterns, made by Sister Tigu’s claws.
And with each step, Bi De felt his soul lighten. He felt the last dregs of fatigue start to leave his body, as the Blessed Land of Fa Ram welcomed her son home.
He glanced at Yin and Miantiao. Neither of them noticed the difference. Neither of them could feel it yet, but he could see it. The way Miantiao became less hunched. The way Yin bounced ever so slightly.
The very road itself seemed to hasten the journey, lending their strides even more speed, yet not to the point of urgency.
Until finally, they came upon the gate. The Great Pillars that marked the boundary. The maple leaf sign, and the words his Master had carved.
Miantiao chuckled. ‘Thessse are most accurate words, no?’ the old snake asked. ‘Truly, you are terrifying when you put your mind to it. But… will your Master truly just accept usss?’
Bi De saw the nervousness upon their faces.
The rooster smiled.
‘Follow,’ he stated simply, as he began to ascend the last hill.
When they crested the top, as Bi De’s home spread out beneath them, he heard the intakes of breaths.
One of them was his own.
The warmth of the sun seemed to soak into his feathers, as they exited the tunnel of trees that lined the road. The breeze blew into them, bringing the smells of home, of growth and fruits, and setting the grass waving.
Bees buzzed and milled around the property, and its outskirts. They took to the air as they noticed him, flying in formation back to their hives.
As the breeze touched them, both Miantiao and Yin’s eyes widened. Fa Ram in all its glory was spread before them.
‘Whaa… wahaaa?’ Yin asked, glancing around at the grass, while the snake was silent, simply staring.
Bi De’s eyes immediately went to his coop. He saw from a distance that the Healing Sage and Sister Ri Zu toiled there. The Healing Sage wore a mask and thick gloves as she carefully removed the leaves from a plant, being exceedingly careful not to get the thick sap on her skin. Beside her Ri Zu hammered away with a mortar and pestle, a little green robe with a blue sash protecting her fur.
Occasionally, a strange, yet oddly familiar orange haired girl was going to them, delivering more of the medicinal herbs they were harvesting.
Yet most of Fa Ram’s residents were out in the fields, for the first parts of the harvest had begun.
The rice paddies were being drained. Disciple Gou Ren was covered in mud, as he inspected the walls, and removed the breaks for the water to rush out. Brother Chun Ke was with him, his enormous back covered in ducks and frogs as he carefully herded some of Wa Shi’s kin out of the draining water, and back into the river.
Disciple Xiulan worked with him, surprisingly stripped to the waist, with only a bare covering preserving her modesty. She smiled and said something, clapping Disciple Gou Ren on the back as they passed each other. The boy rolled his eyes and shook his head.
Sister Pi Pa approached them, a tray of tea balanced upon her back, utterly still and sure, even over rough ground. She served the workers elegantly, before wading into the muck herself to help.
Wa Shi’s head poked out of the water, as he too begged a cup. With an odd flash, he suddenly gained an arm, taking the cup from Pi Pa and taking a sip. He considered the tea, before reaching down and grabbing some algae, sampling it and taking another sip of his beverage. He nodded his head, agreeing with this combination of flavours. Intrigued, Disciple Gou Ren stuck out a finger to taste some of this algae and tea mixture.
Bi De chuckled at his friend’s action, pleased at his return. There was a brief flash of concern at the almost Chow Ji-like limb, but none reacted to it, so he would question it later.
Finally, he beheld his Great Master. He too stood in the paddy. His eyes were closed and his face turned toward the sun. The Great Master’s shirt was around his waist, his tanned skin slick with sweat. The wind blew and tousled his hair like a fond hand.
Behind him in the fields past the paddies, the sheep and cows wandered as they would, and the other chickens flapped as they hunted interlopers.
At that moment, everything fell away. He forgot himself, he could contain himself no longer. He had missed so much… and he wanted to miss no more. He carefully set down the crystal tied to his back, and took a deep breath.
His cry echoed across the hills.
Chickens startled to attention. His Great Master turned, his smile shocked and pleased, as Bi De charged down the hill as fast as his wings and legs could carry him, alighting upon his Great Master’s shoulder, to his rightful place, preening his Master’s hair.
A gentle hand reached up stroking his wattles. His head pressed back.
“You tell ‘em Bi De,” he whispered the customary greeting, and the rooster swallowed thickly. “It's good to see you again, buddy. We missed you.”
The rooster wiped some of the dampness off his cheeks, as he heard Brother Chun Ke squeal with joy.
For a moment, he was just there, a near chick again, and tended to by his Master.
Until he remembered himself.
He coughed, and hopped off his Master’s shoulder, motioning for his companions to approach.
They did so nervously. It always did look a bit amusing, to see the snake’s little green head poking up from between Yin’s ears. Two coils unlooped themselves from her midsection, the smaller snake slithering from his perch to stand before the Great Master. Both kowtowed.
‘Great Massster Jin, we come to beg your hospitality,’ the snake hissed formally. He was about to continue, when his Great Master interrupted.
“Come on, none of that,” he stated simply. “No need for formality here. I read Bi De’s letter, and all I have to say is… Welcome to our home. Miantiao and Yin, right?” his Master asked, crouching down to be more level with them.
Both nodded slowly.
“Good. Now things are probably going to get a bit hectic, so I’ll apologise in advance.”
Confusion spread across their faces, but that was all the indication Bi De’s fellow disciples needed.
Sister Ri Zu was upon Bi De’s back, snuggling into his feathers, and glancing curiously at the newcomers.
Brother Chun Ke’s friendly bulk approached, sniffing curiously.
Surrounded by friends, everything was back to normal.
Until the dragon appeared, so that he could get a better view from outside the pond he had been occupying, hovering over them.
“Ha! This Rou Tigu shall show you how much she has grown. Prepare yourself for tonight, Bi De!” The orange haired girl, who could only be Tigu with that announcement, laughed. Her face was set in a massive grin.
...ah, mostly back to normal.