‘Tigu-cat! Tigu-cat, head-turn back! You stupid-fool! You scurry-ran off too quickly! Take Ri Zu back to other Family-Clan!’
Ri Zu’s strident voice hollered as Tigu darted around the crowds in the predawn light. The town had seemingly transformed overnight. The taller buildings rained petals from strange looking baskets, and there were even more cloth banners and flags! The streets were already lined with crowds, gazing on and shouting names as they watched the people with flags march their way to the Earthly arena. It was loud, with shouting and cheers. Food was being fried and served from stands along the way.
It just was all so exciting!
‘Tigu!’ Ri Zu yipped again. Her little nails dug into Tigu’s back, slightly painful for the first time. Normally she resided in the bandages around Tigu’s chest, but right now she was squeaking directly into Tigu’s ear.
“Nope! Master said we must be punctual! If you wish to go back to the others you can go alone, are you not working on your ability to hide in the shadows?” Tigu asked her tiny companion.
‘Master also said to not take unnecessary risks if one can help it!’ Ri Zu squeaked, getting her strange accent under control.
“Risks like introducing yourself to the Blade of Grass’s petals?” Tigu asked.
Ri Zu shifted uncomfortably, as her nails retracted. She went silent, and Tigu slowed. It was getting a bit too crowded anyway.
Tigu awaited Ri Zu’s reason for hiding away. Was she simply that dedicated to refining her abilities? None of the Petals had noticed her, as far as Tigu could tell.
‘Master’s story about cultivators were… no. Ri Zu canot blame them.’ There was a great sigh. ‘Ri Zu is just nervous. And after meeting Biyu…it is hard. It is like you said. They look at you differently. What is the point of Ri Zu being there, if only to be stared at like an oddity?’
There was frustration there. Frustration Tigu understood. She sighed, and slowed a bit more. They still had plenty of time, and maybe she had been a bit overeager.
Ri Zu sighed again. ‘…and Ri Zu could smell pills. Especially upon the Sect Master. They were different, less acrid smelling, yet they were there.’
Tigu frowned. “I do not believe the Petals have nefarious ends.”
‘Ri Zu knows. Look at Ri Zu. Her mouth is big, and she squeaks mightily, yet she still hides away from the world.’
Tigu’s finger found Ri Zu’s nose with a harsh flick. Ri Zu squeaked and snorted with outrage.
“Humph! I have acknowledged you, Bi De has acknowledged you, and you say this manner of things? Have you not trained hard? Are you not a member of Fa Ram? If they have foul intent, or poison pills, then that just means you have to defeat them like you did Chow Ji, no?”
Ri Zu said nothing, but Tigu was fairly certain the quiet one was thinking.
“What did Master and Mistress say about trying?” Tigu asked.
‘Try and fail, rather than not try at all,’ Ri Zu muttered petulantly. Her little fist reached out and boxed Tigu’s ear. Ha! It did not hurt at all! ‘Very Well! Ri Zu shall keep you safe from poisons! Now, hurry up! That was the second Gong!’
Tigu’s eyes widened at the reverberating tone, deeper than the first, making her chest feel like it was vibrating.
She shot off to the west.
“And if you feel like you don’t belong, and if you still can’t get people to treat you as you wish, just become human! Though they may still dislike your personality, you are rather annoying!”
Ri Zu once more said nothing. Though there was a menacing aura that dripped out of the little rat, which got Tigu’s heart pumping pleasantly, and a cold sweat dripping down her back.
She would most certainly be checking her food, though.
The crowds thinned as they neared the West Gate. Tigu could already see it, the massive edifice of stone that looked to go through one of the mountains, to reach the arena within. Everything was just so big here! It was a bit silly, really. Why would they drill through the mountain, when it was already split in two?
Tigu shook her head at the thought of it. As she drew closer, there were fewer people lining the streets. Tigu saw one boy from the marching cultivators bow his head slightly, as an older woman kissed him on both cheeks. Another man raised both his arms, as a rough looking group of people hooted and hollered for him. Others were alone, their eyes set as they approached the gate. The scent of flowers mixed with the feeling of tension and determination. Tigu set her back, and strode forward.
The gate was flanked by two statues, coiling dragons that entwined over their heads, staring down imperiously at all who would walk beneath their stern gaze.
More veiled clerks stood at the entryway. Tigu waited in the small line that formed at the gate, hopping from foot to foot with excitement. One of the older men looked back at her. Tigu offered him a smile, the man scoffed, shaking his head.
It did not take long for her to get to the front, at least, the clerk accepting her jade token with a small nod.
“Thank you for your service!” Tigu told the clerk, as she walked in. She could sense the bland amusement from the man.
Slowly, the drums, the horns, and the cheers of the crowds faded, until all that was left was silence as Tigu got to the waiting room. It was a wide, vaulted stone room, full of ancient carvings on the walls, and lit with crystals. It was a spartan place, with only a few places to sit. Against one wall, were the clerks, who were writing, and speaking quietly to each other. Nearly every person looked at her as she entered, their eyes probing. The atmosphere was focused and tense, and few were talking. It was a quite small group, with only nineteen people.
There was a dull rumble, as the entire mountain seemed to vibrate.
The third gong.
Tigu glanced around. There were few who looked relaxed enough to just approach, so she went to sit by a wall, waiting for it all to begin.
The fourth gong sounded, so deep and rumbling that Tigu felt her bones vibrate, even in the mountain.
The conversations all ceased, as one of the official-looking men stood. He approached a small, raised platform, and stood atop it, gazing down at the assembled cultivators.
He brought his fist to his mouth, and issued forth a polite cough.
“This Humble Servant of His Imperial Majesty greet—” the nasal voice began. He was cut off by the sound of pounding feet, as a panicked looking boy finished his mad dash into the hall, skidding to a stop.
Oh, that was… Zang Wei?
He let out a breath in obvious relief, then flushed as he realised everybody was looking at him.
The man on the stand cleared his throat again, starting again as if nobody had interrupted.
“This Humble Servant of His Imperial Majesty greets the cultivators who have assembled here today. On behalf of His Imperial Majesty's Sects, and the Azure Hills, we thank you for your contribution. Now, as you all know, the opening ceremonies will commence shortly, and for that, there is a small piece of production. Normally, one walks in with their sect, but as you are all independent cultivators, we shall do this instead. I would ask you all to line up— see these markings upon the floor? Stand upon them, if you would. Those who are shorter in the front.”
There was some shuffling, and some grumbling, but lining up went remarkably smoothly. Tigu found herself in the front, as one of the shortest there. Only one boy was shorter, and he looked even younger than Tigu!
The man on the podium nodded his head.
“The opening ceremony shall start soon. First is the judging, then the preliminary bout, which shall cut your numbers in half.” His voice was cold and dispassionate, as he gazed upon them all from behind his veil.
“Tomorrow, All who have registered, win or lose, may attempt to brave the Hill of Torment. It holds both treasure and dangers in equal measure. Those within may find the key to victory, or may find only injury, and swift defeat.”
A final gong sounded.
The man nodded his head. “May the Heavens favour you this day.”
“Once, every eight years, is this Grand Summit called!” The voice boomed through the halls. Tigu jumped, and squinted at the walls, where there was a bit of purple crystal. “We have no number for this tournament, having been practised since before there are any records to describe it! A place of battle, where our ancestors once dueled for glory!”
“Honoured Guests! Honoured Combatants! Today, we shall witness the purest form of cultivation! Today, we shall witness the path of Ascension! With this Azure Sky as our Witness! With His Imperial Majesty’s eyes in attendance! Today, we witness the very heights of Glory our Azure Hills commands! The place that shall see our Younger Generation Rise as far as they may climb! The Dueling Peaks Grand Summit!”
There was a dull, rumbling roar.
One of the veiled men stepped in front of them, carrying a white flag with the character for Azure upon it.
“Forward behind me, please,” the man said, and their group of twenty
“These Lone Sparks that seek the heavens! Forging their own path!” the voice boomed, as Tigu stepped out through the last portion into the Earthly Arena.
It was dazzling, with the sun just poking up over the walls of the arena, and the thousands of eyes upon her. Tigu nearly froze, as there were shouts, and heckling, and cheers of good fortune.
The clerk with the flag marched forward, to the other end of the area, where there was a giant banner with a Phoenix upon it. The banner of the empire. He raised the white flag high, and drove it into the ground beneath it.
There were more cheers, and one especially booming one. Tigu glanced to the stands, and managed to pick out the Xong Brothers. Gou Ren was waving, and Yun Ren was looking through his recording crystal. Tigu waved up at them. There was some laughter from the stands.
“They have travelled alone, and forged their own paths admirably. But will it be enough?” the voice asked. Tigu glanced over to one of the sections, where there was a slightly rotund man standing on a pedestal of green crystal, his arms spread as he spoke into a crystal growth that came up to near his mouth.
“In their way lies the Sects! The Virtuous, the Noble, the Profound of these Azure Hills!”
The crowd leaned forward. It appeared this is what many were waiting for.
The gates flew open once more, revealing the flags of the sects.
“Misty Lake!” The Xianghua lady strode in at the head of a small group, one hand arrogantly on her hip. Her strange pack was glowing slightly, dull red light shining through vents on the side.. A section of the stands began to shout and stomp their feet. Many of them were wearing reed hats, and several had long bargepoles that they slammed onto the ground. They marched to the front of the arena, where the Azure flag stood, and the flag-bearer slammed it into the ground, adding the swirling symbol under the phoenix
“Hermetic Iron!” A man who looked quite similar to her master strode in, a massive hammer strung across his back, with gauntlets adorning his arms.
The ringing of metal on metal thundered—had those people brought anvils up into their section?!
Hide drums thundered, as the people hammered theri drums, wide-brimmed hats covering their faces.
More and more names were called. Men and women trouped in, flags fluttering in the breeze. And at each name, another section of the arena added their voice. Some seemed to house only a few people. Others had many that would shout and chant their names.
“The Slayers of Sun Ken! The Jade Swords! The Verdant Blade!” the man boomed.
They marched forward in unison, and the crowd gasped. Ah! The Blade of Grass was in fine form today! She looked absolutely at peace, even under the eyes of so many.
Tigu waved. The Blade of Grass gave her a smile. Tigu heard the other two people beside her gasp. One seemed to stagger, and Wei’s face flushed so red Tigu wondered if he was alright.
The entire arena was vibrating at this point, and it was getting a little hard to think.Tigu felt Ri Zu curl up into a little ball, and hold her ears. Tigu’s eyes darted all around. The other sects coming in. The people wearing strange clothes in the stands. Those in the isolated boxes, wearing fanciful clothes, staring down. One in particular looked kind of bored, as he took a swig from a bottle.
“The Framed Sun!” his voice thundered for the last time, as three people wearing reds and golds added the final flag.
“And all are here to be Judged.” The crowds kept cheering, as another section of the arena opened up. From it came ten men, carrying a stone twice the size of Master and Mistress' favourite rock. It was jet black in colour, and polished to nearly a mirror shine.
The cheers and calls reached a fever pitch—until with a resounding thud, the Giant stone came to a rest in the center of the arena.
Abruptly, the cheering cut out, and silence reigned.
“Come! The honour of the first to be judged! This year, as drawn by lots. The Misty Lake Sect!”
Xianghua smirked, as she and her three fellows approached the stone. All bowed first to it, then to the flag… and then, the woman with the strange contraption on her back pressed her hands to the stone.
It hummed and rumbled, before it began to change colour. It shifted, and then the bottom seemed to start to fill with water and mist, rising partially up the stone, until a strange pictogram formed.
It looked a bit like the character for ‘man’, with a strange box beside him.
“Liu Xianghua! The Fourth Stage of the Initiate’s realm!” a voice boomed.
The woman turned, and brushed some of her hair behind her in an elegant movement, staring down imperiously at the rest of them with a little smirk.
Cheers and howls resounded, as the bargepoles slammed into the ground again.
Muttering swept through the arena.
“A true power.”
“Ones to look out for.”
The next one pressed his hands to the stone. The mist swirl and shifted, draining a bit, and another pictogram appeared.
“Han Bao! Second Stage of the Initiate’s Realm!”
There was some more muttering, but more subdued. One person beside Tigu was taking notes.
There was a slight shuffling form Tigu’s shirt.
‘This feels like it is going to take a long while,’ Ri Zu muttered.
Tigu glanced around at all the people.
Yes, it probably was. And from the look of things, they would be going last.
She sighed, and shook her head.
Some of the excitement drained away, but it was kind of interesting watching all the pretty colours swirl on the stone. The Framed Sun people seemed to have a tiny sun rise on the stone, before it formed into another ‘man’ character, with what Tigu was beginning to think was a number. The number 2.
But… well, Initiate and three seemed to be the average, for the people who were at the heads of their processions.
Only a member of “The Grand Ravine, Strongest Sect in the Grass Sea” had another at the fourth stage.
As more cultivators approached the stone, some people started selling meals in the stands. Tigu wished she had something to chew on.
Eventually, it was time for the Blade of Grass’ turn.
She stepped up, as the crowd hushed again, and pressed her hand to the stone.
The black stone shuddered. Blades of grass swarmed up from its base, completely taking over the blank, black stone. It grew in waves, surging up, and up, until the entire stone was green.
Slowly, a new pictogram formed.
A strange, swirling circle, and a dash.
“P-P-Pr-Profound Realm?!” the man stuttered.
The crowd grew deathly silent. The man drinking from a fresh bottle seemed to slip and stagger. Another old man in a different box brought his hands to his mouth and seemed to start coughing. Xianghua’s jaw dropped. Her eyes went round, a look of shock spreading across her face.
“Ha!” she boomed. “As expected of that woman! But power shall not be enough!”
Her voice quavered, which ruined the words, but it broke the sudden quiet.
The crowd exploded, and Tigu picked at her ear at the sudden roar.
There was even a pause to the whole proceedings, as some man came out to check the stone, and then nod at the man announcing things.
And it continued. Though nobody seemed to be paying much attention after that. Everybody was muttering, or talking about “The Demon Slaying Orchid.”
Finally, though, after the sects went, it was their turn. A few more First stage initiates, and even a person who it came up blank for, to the jeers of the crowd, but nobody was really paying attention.
Tigu touched the stone. What looked like massive rents cut across it, until another symbol formed.
“Rou Tigu! Fifth stage?!” the announcer man shouted. The crowd once more howled.
With a shrug she stepped off the stage, ignoring everybody staring at her. She hoped the fights would be soon.