“Whoa…” Gou Ren muttered, as he stared out at the absolutely enormous lake that stretched out before them. The chill from Cloudrest seeped into his bones, his boots crunching slightly through the snow on top of the hill. He had seen the images, of course, but he still couldn’;t believe that there was snow in summer up on the mountain.
“Big!” Tigu agreed from her perch on his shoulders, her yellow eyes equally as wide. Her legs dangled on either side of Gou Ren’s head.
The sun made the fields shine and shimmer in verdant green, while the enormous lake reflected the light like a giant mirror.
“Your images almost do it justice,” Xiulan mused. Yun Ren, who was smiling down at the scene, whipped around, his face a mixture of shock and offense… before he saw the little smile on Xiulan’s face, and settled for glaring at her.
Gou Ren smirked. His older brother was still having a bit of trouble adjusting to Xiulan’s newfound mischievous streak.
“But you are correct. The view is spectacular, Yun Ren. Thank you for leading us in this direction,” Xiulan stated, as she gazed upon the lake. “I would like to see it from the back of Wa Shi.”
Yun Ren nodded vigorously. “Imagine the view!” he agreed.
Gou Ren looked back down prodding Tigu off his shoulders as he left the two of them to wax poetic about the scenery.
The trip had been pretty uneventful so far. They could cover hundreds of li in a single day if they pushed for it, and they hadn’t really encountered anything. It felt like they were just on a hunting trip back home with the addition of an overly excitable sibling tagging along. Tigu would often shoot off to investigate something or go to pluck a medicinal herb Ri Zu had shown her. Her pack was getting steadily heavier with her forage, much to Ri Zu’s amusement.
It was either that or they would stop at some manner of waterfall so Yun Ren could record images. They camped under the stars, and swapped stories over the fire in the evenings.
Mostly, they were his brother complaining about a fox spirit beast. Gou Ren wanted to meet him. Anything that could annoy his brother so much should receive his warm regards.
They awoke with the sun, and after prying everybody off of him, they’d set off for another day of running. People using him as a source of warmth never changed, though it was a little awkward waking up to Tigu sprawled across his chest.
Their route steadily took them south-east. Gou Ren could feel something change in his bones. He could taste it in the air. The sun felt slightly different on his skin. He was the furthest south he had ever been in his life. It would add a little bit to their trip, as the Dueling Peaks were further south than south east, but Gou Ren was excited to see the city.
He ducked, as something whistled over his head, barely dodging the snowball Tigu had thrown at him, only to get pelted by a much smaller snowball.
Tigu laughed, her hands on her hips. While Ri Zu from her perch on Tigu’s head tossed another tiny snowball up and down in her paw.
They were all rather wet when they finally arrived on the main road, skidding down from the mountain, to join the masses of people entering the city. The road was well built, solid under their feet, but worn down by thousands of years of use. There were small grooves in it, the span of a cart’s wheels, and each cart they saw travelled in another’s wake in the slight dip in the road. The left side of the road was towards the city, while the right was away.
They entered the gates, the guards inspected them for a brief moment, but otherwise not making any moves from their posts. Yun Ren waved to one in particular, who hesitantly waved back.
“Nice guy! Gave me directions when I came here the first time!” he shouted to the others over the din.
Xiulan had apparently not been here too many times, so Yun Ren led the way, walking with purpose, while they all followed. It smelled kind of bad, though, and his nose wrinkled as he followed after his brother.
“Pale Moon Lake City is the mortal capital of the Azure hills. However, Grass Sea City is the heart of cultivators’ affairs,” she had explained to him when he'd asked about it before.
The city itself was a teeming mass of shouting and food stalls, of hundreds, no, thousands of workers. Fishermen, street sweepers, butchers and shopkeepers, all busily going about their business and talking over each other. He felt himself slowing, as he took it all in.
He was startled out of his country-boy gaping by a hand clapping gently on his shoulder. He blushed at Xiulan’s amused smile, and she pushed him along, guiding him back onto the path behind his brother. Gou Ren tried to pay attention after that, but Tigu didn’t bother. She simply held onto the end of Xiulan’s sleeve as they walked, her eyes wide and her head swiveling to take in the city. She dodged easily around the press of bodies, but still kept her hand on Xiulan as they pushed through the crowd.
There was a little black head peeking out of the back of Tigu’s shirt, as Ri Zu sniffed rapidly at the city’s air, her eyes equally excited.
Gou Ren shook his head, and tried to ignore some of the more enticing sights. It didn’t take them too long to push through the crowd.
His brother was walking with confidence, as they approached the more upper class part of the city. The streets here were pristine, well cleaned, and wide, as the buildings increased in size and height.
‘I’m definitely going to build one of those,’ he thought to himself, as he stared at the multi-layered tower. It just looked so cool.
Eventually, they came to a walled compound, with two guards standing at the entrance. The walls were high, and filled with detailed carvings of crystals and chunks of glittering rock.
“Yun Ren, here to see Biyu? She should be off today,” Yun Ren announced himself to the guards, one of whom winced as something started buzzing rapidly underneath his shirt.
The other guard eyed them all for a moment, then brought out a ledger, staring at it for a moment, before waving them through.
They entered the courtyard, and approached a two-story building with green roof tiles. It had multiple doors on it, and a few people in thick cloaks with an odd design milling about, sitting around and talking. They also had hoods and goggles that were pulled down, as they went about their business.
“You know where she lives?” Gou Ren asked.
His brother nodded, and scratched his cheek. “Ah… yeah, I helped her move in. She used to live in a different one, but she impressed some of the Crystal Masters, so she got a bigger one.”
Gou Ren glanced up at the building, and then around at the number of people in it. It was interesting. He didn’t know if he would ever want to live in this strange building, but it was neat.
His brother knocked on one of the ground-floor doors when they got inside, banging loudly.
There was a muffled squeak, and some shuffling.
A girl with fluffy, messy brown hair peeked around the slightly open door frame, like she had just pulled the thick hood and goggles from her head.
“Who…?” she asked, before her eyes widened further.
“Hey, Biyu,” Yun Ren said with a smile. There was none of his normal exaggerated casualness when he tried to talk to the girls in Verdant Hill. Instead, he just looked happy to see her.
The door opened fully. “Yun!” Biyu chirped out while beaming at Yun Ren. Her eyes darted over Yun Ren before settling on the crystal around his neck.
“It still works?” she asked eagerly.
“Like a dream,” Yun Ren replied.
The girl let out a happy sound. “I can’t wait to take a look at it, make sure everything is working—actually, never mind, you have to see this!” she said eagerly, grabbing Yun Ren’s arm and pulling him into the house, while leaving the rest of them out on the step.
Gou Ren turned to Xiulan, who shrugged. They followed in after them.
It was a fairly nice, if small set of rooms. It had a bedroom with a half opened door, a kitchen, and a larger area that was fully dedicated to what looked to be a workshop. There were chisels and files neatly organized on the desk, along with glass lenses. Tigu perked up as she saw the carving tools.
“I was working on this! The Masters just said I could do whatever I wanted, so look! The Mark Two!“ Biyu rattled off, as she showed Yun Ren a crystal that looked a lot like his own, but with an obvious protrusion on the front. His brother’s eyes were intent as he picked it up.
“Yeah, it’s a bit heftier, but…. Oh, hey, that's interesting. It's like a focusing lens! It zooms in!”
Biyu puffed out her chest with pride. “It took me a while, but I got it! Now, I want to see what images you’ve taken with the other one!”
His brother grinned, about to project some images.
Gou Ren rolled his eyes. He coughed, both his brother and his “friend” jumped at the noise, shoving away from each other and blushing.
“I’m sorry, honoured guests!” Biyu stuttered out, her face flushed as she realised what she had done. “This one is Biyu—just Biyu! Please partake of my hospitality, limited though it may be!”
“Gou Ren. This fool’s brother.” He introduced himself, bowing in greeting and smiling. “Nice to meet the girl he wouldn’t shut up about.”
Both of them flushed at that. Biyu, glancing at Yun Ren with affection as his brother studiously looked away, as slight flush on his cheeks.
“Rou Tigu!” Tigu said, before going back to examining the tiny chisels and files, as well as the minute crystal shavings. “This one is skilled! We must trade pointers on carving, Just Biyu!”
“And I am Cai Xiulan.” The woman introduced herself.
Biyu nodded, but seeing that none of them were particularly bothered by her mistake, she took a deep breath and her shoulders relaxed.
She gave them all a tentative smile.
It was a bit difficult getting them all seated, and getting the tea ready in the cramped space. But Biyu didn’t seem to mind the number of people in the house.
So! Gou Ren asked. “How did…. This happen.”
Biyu smiled. “He came back the next day to show me all the images he took, and bought me a meal to thank me for my work. It gave me a few more ideas, so I took them to Master Jing! He was already quite happy with my progress, so… Well, he said I should live in the main compound, and he was very interested in my work. So Yun helped me move everything, not that I had much of it.”
“Love at first sight?” Gou Ren ribbed, and both of them blushed.
“For all of his complaints about Senior Sister, he seems to be quite the romantic as well.” Xiulan mused.
“Shaddup.” Yun Ren grunted, glaring at both of them, while Biyu just fiddled with the hem of her cloak.
Yun sat up and clapped his hands. But, yeah, stuff aside, I actually wanted to see if you could help us, Biyu, my friend has a crystal, but its a bit.. broken?”
The red on her cheeks faded, as Biyu sat up straighter.
But the moment the image of the crystal formed on the wall, her eyes sharpened, gaining an almost predatory look of intent.
“That is beyond me. It's a wonder it hasn’t exploded already,” she muttered, looking closely at the warped crystal. “Old too. See those facets? We call that the Ancestors’ Style. We don’t really use it. It’s for crystals a lot more powerful than what we normally get. And… well, it’s impractical doing facets that way. Even the most minute of shakes in your hand could disrupt the formation you’re imposing on it. Master Jing has cut one in that style, and it took him ten years! He said I might be able to do one, after looking at my work, but…” She shrugged.
Yun Ren shrugged as he lazed on the couch, his knees knocking against Gou Ren’s as they usually did. “Just wanted to show you it, and see if you could direct us in the right place,” he asked.
Biyu nodded. “I can talk to Master Jing directly, so he can prepare. He's the only one here right now, on account of the tournament, though, so if he can’t help you…” She shrugged apologetically. “He’d want to examine it if nothing else. And he might let me watch him really work.” Her eyes shone at that, the same glint Yun got about his image recording, or Meimei when talking about medicine.
Gou Ren understood why his brother liked her.
“Thanks, Biyu. Jin and Bi De are good friends, you know? Just thought I'd ask for them,” Yun Ren said.
The woman nodded, as they smiled at each other. “Ah, but what should we do for food? It's a bit cramped here….”
They looked at each other and shrugged.