The Grass Sea. It stretched out before them even as their stride ate the li before them.
Tigu knew vaguely what the “sea” was, despite never having seen anything like it. She just knew. Images flashed in her head of an endless expanse of water, and of her own Master’s descriptions. That Pale Moon Lake was close, but compared to what she knew of the ocean, it was but a drop of water.
If that was the case, then the “Grass Sea” was aptly named. The forests abruptly thinned, the hills grew shorter and fatter, and all that was left was a vast green expanse. The breeze smelled vaguely sweet from the thousands of meadow flowers that poked up and the sun shone intently on their backs, much stronger than it was back home. There were barely any rocks, making the hills look far smoother than they should be.
Blue sky and green grass, as far as the eye could see. It was a striking sight, and Disciple Yun Ren’s crystal chimed repeatedly as he captured the view. They had been running for most of the day now, across the hills instead of braving the congested road. Tigu expected the number of people to decrease as they left the city, not increase. Every village they passed was at a minimum twice the size of Hong Yaowu, while the towns were larger and denser than Verdant Hill!
Truly, there were a great many people in this world!
With a hop, she alighted on Disciple Gou Ren’s pack so she could get a better view, squinting at the horizon, and the endless grass fields .
“It goes on forever. Is it all like this?” Tigu asked the Blade of Grass as she flopped backwards, dangling on Gou Ren's back.. Disciple Gou Ren made a noise of irritation as her legs fixed around his neck, and Ri Zu squeaked with outrage as she nearly fell out of Tigu’s shirt. Xiulan was startled out of her contemplation at the question, having been deep in thought. As they got steadily closer to their goal, she had gotten quieter. Not morose, but she had been thinking about something.
Yet, she did not seem overly concerned, as her face brightened slightly, shaking her head as Tigu dangled upside down.
“Not all, Tigu,” she explained. “Although most of the grass is like this, there are different kinds of grass. Near my home some of it can grow to be twice as tall as a man. The Bloodgrass of the Bonepile is as scarlet as its namesake, and Wrecker Thicket is full of blades as wide as a man’s wrist and as sharp as a knife.
Tigu listened intently, her mind conjuring all sorts of interesting images. Gou Ren made another noise of irritation, grabbing her legs and flipping her so she was stomach down on his shoulder like a bag of rice. “Will you show us, one day?” Tigu asked.
Xiulan nodded firmly. “Of course. We shall travel these lands if you wish it. As honoured guests and friends of the Verdant Blade Sect!” She declared, before trailing off. “Though… I am a bit concerned about how my sect Elders shall act. I’m sure it is nothing to fear, but I do not wish for Master Jin’s generosity to be tested, should they get… ideas about our relationship,” she said the last part with a sigh.
Tigu didn’t know how to respond to that. It was outside her experiences, but the thought of some man trying to pressure her Master and Mistress made her uneasy.
“But enough ill thoughts. I shall speak with them, and make sure nothing like that happens,” Xiulan assured her.
Tigu nodded. If the Blade of Grass said she would do this, then she would do this!
“Tell us about the tournament!” Tigu asked, putting the other conversation out of her mind.
Xiulan nodded. “The Dueling Peaks Tournament begins in the Earthly Arena, the largest of the arenas, the one built into the base of the mountains with the Opening Ceremony and the Judgement. Each cultivator there declares their sect, and places their hands upon the Heavenly Ascension Stone which describes the cultivator’s cultivation level to all present. Then the tournament bouts begin. It is single elimination, with a loss removing the competitor from the tournament. In each round, the arena is raised one level, using the power of the Masters, and the strength of those who have lost.”
Gou Ren paused. “Wait, they pull it up the mountain?” he asked, incredulous. “With people inside it?!”
“Yes. Each round raises the Arena closer to the heavens, until in the last, the tournament sits atop the Dueling Peaks. It's… not particularly fun, to be a part of the pulley team. Having to lift the entire arena, and a hundred thousand people is a bit difficult,” Xiulan confessed. “Though I suppose it is good strength training? They used to use artifacts, but those broke around two thousand years ago, so it is with strength that the arena now rises!”
Tigu could see it. Standing atop a mountain, facing Xiulan… It sounded most enjoyable!
“Are there any limits? Like… strength limits, or age limits or something?” Yun Ren asked.
“The only limits are that one must actually be a cultivator and be born in the Azure Hills. Other provinces may say that one must be of a certain cultivation level… but in truth, the Azure Hills are too weak to put any such stipulation,” Xiulan stated.
“What about the Hill of Torment?” Tigu asked.
“That is normally a separate event, though you may enter if you wish. It has been several years since I entered that section.”
“I’m gonna enter that part!” Tigu stated with conviction.
Xiulan chuckled at her enthusiasm.
“Well, I’ll direct you to make the proper procedures. It's a bit confusing, for newcomers. Let's have a meal in that town. It is the last stop before the Dueling Peaks, I would say. We should be able to see the tournament grounds soon.”
Xiulan pointed at the dark spot on the horizon, and they adjusted their course, heading for the walls.
As they grew closer Tigu could see the walls were roughly hewn of the same off grey-colour stone that littered the ground back home. Most buildings around here were made of that stone, as there didn’t seem to be too many trees. The guards at the gate, or guard to be exact, looked utterly bored and exhausted. He barely glanced at them as they entered, studiously ignoring their existence.
The town itself was absolutely packed with people. Although there were obviously fewer people here than in Pale Moon Lake City, it was a denser, more crowded place. Tigu had abandoned her position on Gou Ren’s back, as they pushed their way through the crowd.
“Let’s go there, I’ve had food from there before,” the Blade of Grass stated, as she pointed to a noodle shop.
Tigu’s head swiveled, and she saw something interesting. A man with a long blue spear upon his back talking to another woman who wore a rather excessive amount of silk robes.
Tigu felt her blood pump faster, as she recalled her Master’s wisdom.
“Ha! We head towards an exciting place!” she enthused.
Xiulan paused, and turned back to Tigu “....The noodle shop?” she asked with a smirk.
“Yeah! Our Master says that when cultivators gather at a restaurant, a fight or an altercation shall invariably break out!” Tigu declared authoritatively. “He said to dive behind the counter and watch!”
Xiulan chucked. “Come now, I’m sure he meant that as a joke…” she trailed off, her brow furrowing. “Well, there was that time with the Young Mistress of Misty Lake, Xianghua, or there was the time with that Young Master, or…”
The Blade of Grass paused. She opened her mouth, and closed it again. She pondered for a moment more.
“Huh,” she finally muttered.
“So… are we still heading over there?” Disciple Gou Ren asked.
“…it should be fine?” Disciple Xiulan responded, though she looked a bit less confident than she did before. “It doesn’t happen every time.”
They opened the door, and their party walked in. And indeed, as expected, it was full of cultivators! She could feel their intent, as they glanced at the newcomers. Their eyes ghosted over Tigu, for the most part, lingering for a moment upon her Brother Disciples, before finally alighting on the Blade of Grass… and staying there. The jaw of one of the men dropped, and they began to mutter. Tigu could hear them remarking on her beauty, and wondering who she was.
What an odd bunch!
Tigu’s eyes flicked around excitedly as Xiulan and Yun Ren went to put in their orders. She saw a man that had a large hammer, and a nice body, almost like her Master’s! There was Blue-Spear guy! And that one had a rather pretty looking hairpin! The craftsmanship was quite good! Gold, with small, translucent pieces of glass or rock forming the spaces in the wings—
“It is rude to stare,” the woman scolded, her eyes narrow as she turned to look at Tigu. Her Qi swirled about her slightly.
Ah! She was right!
“Sorry!” Tigu apologised, as her Master had instructed. “I was just admiring your hairpin! Wonderful craftsmanship!”
The other woman looked at her strangely, like she wasn’t quite expecting her response or the conversation to go that way.
“Well, I suppose even a yokel has some eye for quality,” she muttered.
“This one is Rou Tigu, who are you?” she offered politely.
The woman stared at her. “…you’re a strange one,” is all she said, before turning back around.
Another man from a table nearby, slim, with a grey robe, snorted. “Look at this brat, staring at jewelry without a care in the world!” he chortled. “If you go into the tournament with that attitude, girl, you’re going to get hurt.”
He smirked. His green Qi coiled around him, and intent brushed up against her senses. It was an unpleasant, minor distraction.
Tigu cocked her head to the side. Her back twitched at the small amount of challenge in his tone, but she carefully put it off to the side, remembering her lessons.
“Thank you for the warning!” she allowed. “But I don’t think I’m in any danger!” De-escalation! Like she was taught!
The man’s eye twitched. Disciple Gou Ren snorted, and the woman let out a short, sharp laugh as well.
The Green Man’s intent flared more, as he stood.
Tigu’s eyes narrowed. Oh! She was supposed to show her strength!
Tigu’s intent flared.
The room fell into silence. The Green Man’s face went pure white, as blood drained from it. She could hear his heart suddenly hammering in his chest.
“See? I’m not in any danger at all!” she stated.
“…Yes, miss, no danger at all,” the man swallowed thickly.
Tigu nodded as he sat back down.
“Forgive my earlier rudeness, miss, my name is Yinxia Qiao,” the woman with the hairpin said, turning around entirely to greet Tigu politely. She was sweating a bit for some reason.
“Nice to meet you,” Tigu allowed. “Say, do you come here often?”
“My sect lies around these parts, yes,” the woman answered immediately.
“Do you think we’re gonna see any fights?” she asked hopefully.
The woman looked around at the suddenly subdued atmosphere.
“No, miss, I do not believe so.”
Tigu frowned. Was her master wrong? She kind of wanted to see how these people fought…
But nothing happened. Everybody just sat there.
“Did we miss something?” Yun Ren asked, when he and Xiulan came back with the food.