Tigu yawned as the last bouts started. The person who had their stone show up blank was almost absently pushed out of the ring by the Hammer man, who appeared deep in thought, with his face still a bit red, and was constantly sneaking glances at Tigu.
Ri Zu would not explain why she should not call him ‘handsome man’, only that it was inappropriate.
Tigu shrugged, and glanced around. All of the Petals had made it through the first match, and were looking mighty pleased with themselves, as they stood beside the Blade of Grass.
There was a shout from the crowd as the loud one, Zang Wei, suddenly shifted and the man who had been pummeling him went flying out of the arena.
He panted harshly, but raised his arms in victory.
The gong sounded, and they were directed to line up once more, though the losers were separated. Some of them had tears in their eyes. Others were hunched, and tired looking. They were injured and beaten. But some of them still had steel in their spine.
Tigu didn’t exactly know what she should feel for them. A large part of her scoffed at their weakness. Another part, one that had been steadily growing during her time in human form, felt an odd sort of sympathy. She knew what it was like, to be defeated again and again.
The participants stood behind one of the veiled men, who led them out of the arena, to half cheers, and half jeers.
“Give thanks to the victorious!” the voice boomed, and the crowd began to stomp their feet. “And all in the stands, sit, and brace yourselves!”
The gong began to sound. Each thunderous strike set the whole stadium vibrating.
Then, there was an odd grating sound, and the entire stadium heaved. Some of the competitors staggered.
The ground rumbled. The mountain groaned… And the Earthly Stadium began to rise.
“Heave!” the crowd shouted. The gong sounded, and they inched up again.
“Heave!” Another shudder. The crowd pounded their feet.
“Heave!” The entire stadium groaned… but not a single crack or sound of falling rock echoed, as the Earthly Arena rose.
“Heave!” They roared one final time. There was a shuddering, grinding sound.
The arena stopped moving, something locking into place beneath their feet.
“Give thanks to the Masters! Give thanks to the defeated!” the voice boomed. “For it is with their strength, that the Great Arena rises!”
Tigu, this time, cheered with the rest of the crowd. That was quite exhilarating!
The man cleared his throat, as the defeated ones walked in. They were sweaty and exhausted looking, most of them stripped of their shirts, as they lined up once more.
This time, the clapping was more enthusiastic as they walked back in. Many seemed confused, as they were given water, and several of the aides wiped their sweat with towels,
“And now, honoured combatants and guests, with the First Ascension of the Earthly Arena, we shall reveal the brackets!” the voice boomed once more.
The air above the arena spluttered and fuzzed. Tigu rubbed her eyes, as slowly, haltingly, a giant image formed. It winked out of existence for a brief few seconds, before forming again. It spiraled around in a giant orb, showing names and lines, travelling towards the center.
Tigu pouted. She was on the opposite side of the chart to the Blade of Grass! Would she truly have to wait so long to have some fun? Her next opponent was one from that Grand Ravine place.
She shook her head, as the crowd cheered.
“Now, tomorrow is the Hill of Torment, and there will be an auction held in the Azure Jade Trading Company's halls! The bouts will resume in two days! Being late is grounds for disqualification!”
With that, they were dismissed. There was another room on the side of the mountain, one with a spiral staircase, that she was directed through, until she was back onto the streets.
She wandered out with the rest of the competitors, through the gates, and yawned again, stretching, as the rest of them gave her a wide berth.
‘So? You have won your first bout. Was it what you were hoping for?’ Ri Zu asked.
“Not really,” Tigu replied. She kicked at the ground, as she wandered over to the other entrance. She supposed it was nice to have different people to fight. But it wasn’t anything special. Hopefully, the Hill of Torment tomorrow would be fun.
She sighed, looking up at the sky. Her fellow disciples told her they would meet her here, after the match.
She was only waiting for a couple of minutes, before she heard a small commotion in one of the alleyways nearby.
“..should I see what that is?” she asked.
‘I suppose,’ Ri Zu squeaked, as her little nose poked out. It wasn’t running off this time! She was going to be back in a second!
Intrigued, she walked forwards, towards the raised voices.
A rough looking man with his group were surrounding Zang Wei, who was glaring back.
“I think there may be a little accident if you don’t bow out, boy. It's for your own good! Or there may be an accident anyway,” he leered.
Zang Wei’s eyes narrowed.
“Well, maybe you might suffer an accident!” he thundered back, getting into a martial stance. Why were they fighting? Did they not—
Tigu remembered Zang Wei flipping to the end, and signing the sheet.
Tigu frowned at the scene, and debated letting them continue, when she sighed, and spoke up.
“That will disqualify you, fools,” she stated blandly. Everybody paused. Both the rough looking man, and Zang Wei.
The rough looking man whirled, a snarl on his face, before it slid off as Tigu stepped out of the shadow. He quickly waved his hand, and his group stopped surrounding the loud Zang Wei.
“One must always act with a virtuous bearing. Fighting outside the specified grounds shall lead to immediate disqualification. Did neither of you read the forms they got us to sign?” she asked, irritated.
Both of them paled, as they glanced at each other, and then back to her. “I, uh, can't read,” the rough looking man muttered.
“The courtly characters are hard,” Zang Wei agreed.
Indeed, they were. Which is why she had Ri Zu for help!
“Competitors get free food from Chao Baozi too,” she said blandly.
Both of them perked up at that.
“A fortuitous encounter,” Zang Wei muttered to himself, before bowing. “Thank you for enlightening me, Fairy Sister! Would you do me the honour of dining with me?” he asked brightly.
“Oi! No, eat with us, Big Sis!” the scruffy man tried. “The Farrow Gang owes ya, yeah?”
“No,” Tigu said and turned, her curiosity satisfied. “Go about your business, Loud Boy, Rags.” she decided, naming both of them.
The rough looking man spluttered, while the men behind him looked a bit offended.
Tigu yawned, and walked away.
“Look at that, you ugly Rag, you scared that icy beauty away!”
“Ha, you loud little shit, I’m going to beat your teeth into the back of your throat in the ring!” the big man snarled. “Be grateful she interfered, and that these rules are foolish!”
Tigu glanced back. They were arguing with each other as they travelled in the same direction, the group of people trailing behind them.
With a shrug, she wandered back to the meeting spot. Just in time for her fellow disciples to round the corner.
“Where is the Blade of Grass?” she asked.
“She was told to bring the rest of the students directly to the manor,” Yun Ren said. “So they’re all going there, while we got some time to kill, if you want.”
Tigu nodded and told them, “I get free food at Chao Baozi.”
Both brothers nodded their heads, stroking imaginary beards sagely. “Never turn down free food,” they said in unison, and set off.
“So what did you say to that Hammer guy?” Disciple Gou Ren asked, as they set off towards the restaurant.
“Oh? I said I would see the handsome man later,” she said, ignoring Gou Ren’s sudden coughing fit and the return of Ri Zu’s chittering laughter, “His muscles and freckles are quite nice, and I would like to carve him!”
Yun Ren stared at her, and then burst into laughter, ruffling her hair.
Tigu still didn’t see what was so funny about it.
They kept bugging her about it for a long time. It was a bit annoying, but at least the meat buns were good. She felt quite refreshed after eating them.
She would have to come here tomorrow!
They returned to the compound of the Verdant Blade, and Tigu drifted off to sleep. She wondered what her Master would think. And what he was doing right now.
They were probably having an exciting time!
Bi De stood on the front of the great fortress-coop as it trundled down the road, making for Pale Moon Lake City. The wind caressed his feathers, as a song drifted on the breeze.
Steady, twanging tones drifted out of his Great Master’s ‘Ban Jo’, as he sat on top of the rice. He hummed along to a tune only he knew, a straw hat pulled low over his eyes, and a stalk of grain in his mouth.
Miantiao was beside him, basking in the sun on the tarp-covered rice bags.
His Great Master had been in an odd mood since they set off. Half nervousness, half excitement. He seemed convinced that something strange or bad would happen on the road, his eyes searching for some manner of hidden danger.
It was such that Bi De had redoubled his own watch, flying high, and circling around at night, looking for anything that could cause his Great Master such distress.
But as the days dragged on, his Great Master managed to relax himself. He took calming breaths in the morning, and spent longer than usual doing his morning stretches, but his mood did improve.
His Great Master raised his hand in greeting, as another cart came the other way on the road. Its occupants stared incredulously at the sight, their eyes wide. One of the older men looked into his bottle with concern, before shaking his head, and studiously ignoring them.
Bi De’s Great Master chuckled, as he kept strumming his instrument.
“You okay down there?” he asked, sitting up, and glancing at the front of the cart.
‘Hell Yeah!’ Yin panted as she strained against the ropes, pulling them onward. ‘Strength training, for the rematch against Senior Sister!’ the rabbit enthused.
Their Great Master nodded. “Well, whenever you want to switch back. Don’t want you to hurt yourself,” he said, before leaning back again.
He seemed quite surprised when Yin asked to pull the cart this morning. His Great Master had obviously been intending to carry them the entire way. And while Yin was obviously much slower than their Master, he allowed it.
He did eventually take back over, after scolding a panting Yin. It was not so much the weight as it was the awkward way she had to pull their load.
His hand ruffled the rabbit's fur, and she leaned back into the touch gladly, giggling slightly.
Bi De’s Master shook his head, and set off at a faster pace.
Yin stared at his back, as she settled in beside Miantiao.
She turned to Bi De, her eyes full of warmth.
‘Thank you for bringing us, Bi De!’ she cheered.
Bi De nodded his head, as he watched his Great Master carry them onwards.
They stopped for the night not long after. His Great Master stretched and yawned.
“Getting a bit heavier, it feels like,” he muttered, as he put his hand on the cart. He did not seem overly concerned, however. He made them their meal, and then drifted off to sleep on top of the sacks of rice.
Bi De was getting ready to join him, when he noticed a movement in the forest. His eyes narrowed, and he went to investigate, Yin beside him.
“Quick in and out, yeah?” a voice stated confidently
“Are you sure about this? How did he get it here, he doesn’t have any oxes!”
“It doesn’t matter, we’ll call the rest of the boys!”
“But what if hes… ya know?” the man muttered nervously.
“What, a cultivator? They don’t travel these roads!” the other scoffed.
Bi De had heard enough. He coughed politely.
Both men whirled.
“Huh? A chicken?” the more assertive one demanded.
There was a brief moment of violence.
The less assertive one was rather quick to lead them to his comrades.
His Great Master stared blankly at the pile of groaning men in the morning.
He took a breath, and let it out.
“Good job,” he stated and scratched behind Yin’s ears.
They reached the gates of the city the next day.