We were in the streets the next morning as the sun came up. I had some stuff to do. Big D, Yin, and Noodle had been invited back to the Crystal Emporium, so that Master Jing could better explain to them what he would be doing to the crystal, if the transfer idea didn’t turn out. The snake had a bit of an issue though.
“I’m pretty certain he doesn’t mean you any harm,” I told the snake.
‘Hisss reaction wasss suspiciousss,’ The snake hissed. ‘Where was his shock? All others have expressssed at least something.’
I guess he had a point. Master Jing hadn’t really had a reaction to the Spirit Beasts that had come into his home, and seemed completely at ease with Big D talking to him.
At the same time it was obvious Biyu had informed him about them, and there was something else to consider.
“Why don’t you just ask him?” I returned. “You just went quiet while we were in there. For all you know, he's met a spirit beast before… if he stays shifty then, then it's a little suspicious, yeah, but if he answers, then it’s better, huh?”
The snake paused, and snorted. ‘Just ask? I suppose it is that simple.’
Big D clucked with amusement.
We met Biyu on the road outside her house. My ‘kids’ got dropped off with their host.
“I can… Uhhhh carry you, if you want?” Biyu offered to Noodle, as she saw his kinked back, but her eyes kept darting to Yin.
The snake raised his good eyebrow, and snorted. ‘Thank you, dear.’ he said, and slowly slithered up one of Biyu’s arms. ‘Accept the kind woman’s offer, Yin.’
The rabbit cocked her head to the side, and with a shrug hopped into Biyu’s arms.
The woman looked inordinately happy with the fluffy bunny in her arms, a rooster on her shoulder, and a snake surreptitiously rolling his eye at me from her arm.
I kind of wanted to see what Master Jing would say about the crystals, but I needed to see if I could actually sell this year’s rice harvest. They couldn’t buy it in Verdant Hill, claiming the grade was too high to afford.
So that left the Azure Jade Trading company.
I had changed into the nice coat Meimei had gotten for me when she came back from cleaning the well at Verdant Hill. With a wave at my ‘kids,’ I went to get some of the rice and another couple of Maple Syrup jugs I had brought along out of the padlocked door. The guards were quick and attentive, though one of them kept tapping at a stone pendant on the door and glancing at me. It looked like the entry buzzer that the Crystal Emporium had.
It was apparently on the fritz or something because it didn’t buzz me in. I snorted at that, things always broke down at the most inopportune times. I wondered what tech support was like here. Did they ask if you turned it off and on again?
With a few bags over my shoulder, I set off to the Azure Jade Trading Company headquarters. It was easy to find, with the murals of their symbol all around, and the absolutely gigantic building that they owned.
There were carved dragons on the side of the doors, and it was painted shades of vibrant blues and greens.
The front counter was pretty busy. It was part reception, part warehouse, and there were all manner of goods on display here. There were clothes, and what looked like beds, as well as rings and necklaces. It looked like a small mall, or maybe a strange kind of Ikea?
Meh. Nothing that I needed.
“Rou Jin, here to see Guan Bo,” I said to the well dressed woman at the receptionist desk.
The receptionist’s eyes flicked across my form, lingering on my freckles, tanned skin, and my coat. It was a bit of a contrast. Her fine clothes and uniform, and pale skin from working indoors. She looked at something on the desk before she raised a delicate eyebrow.
“One moment, please, sir,” she said, with just a hint of a patronizing tone. Her eyes dutifully went to her scroll, and then widened with surprise, when she saw my name on it.
“Just one moment please, sir,” she said, and went into the back.
Guan Bo came dashing out a few minutes later.
“Master Jin! So good to see you!” he declared with genuine cheer, bowing respectfully when he came out. “How may our Azure Jade Trading company aid you today?”
I smiled, and held out one of the bags of rice.
“Got some stuff to sell,” I said, “and a bit more of the other stuff along.” I patted the jug.
Guan Bo’s eyes gleamed, and I sighed internally. Yay, negotiations with a merchant. Those were always fun.
I stood and braced for combat. Hopefully everybody else was having a better time than me.
Blood splattered, as another shrieking, mindless beast threw itself at her. Six more of its packmates went for different points on her body in a coordinated attack.
Blades of Qi shredded them, as Tigu flipped over a sudden blast of fire and arrows that shot from the walls.
‘Left! On your left!’ Ri Zu squeaked, as another beast seemingly materialized from the walls and jumped at Tigu, its maw wide.
Rou Tigu laughed and slammed an axe-kick into its skull, sending it to the ground. She landed for a brief moment then immediately had to move again.
She bounced off the wall, as the ground opened up beneath her feet, and landed on the other side. She glanced back at the spiked pit. That one had been quite tricky!
“I am glad you decided to accompany me this day, Ri Zu!” Tigu declared. Indeed, it had been a bit of a surprise that her companion had willingly come to this place, but Tigu was glad her words had an effect!
Ri Zu squeaked, still a bit unused to the praise, and buried herself in Tiogu’s hair.
Tigu laughed, and skipped through the halls, to the end of the little maze. Sje tapped the table of stone at the end of the room.
There was a bottle on this table, one full of pills. She picked the dusty thing up, and looked at the little blue and green pellets, before setting it back down.
“How long have these been down here to get so dusty?” she asked Ri Zu, who shrugged.
‘A long while, Ri Zu thinks. They’ve probably lost their potency anyway. Medicine only lasts so long,’ Ri Zu said.
Tigu put the bottle back down, and turned back to return to the surface. She hopped over the pit, plucked some more arrows out of the air, and pushed her way past the two halves of a rock that had fallen from the ceiling. She exited up into the mist filled air, and the dark, grasping branches that blotted out the sun’s rays.
Tigu could see just fine.
The Hill of Torment was proving to be a great distraction. The Smaller Blade of Grass had explained it to her as they had lined up in the morning. “The closest thing the Azure Hills had to a hidden realm,” she had said of the mist-shrouded hill in the middle of a ravine. It had been dark and foreboding looking, and everybody else had been nervous, as they stepped into the swirling mist.
It had whited out her vision for a moment, and then they were on the hill.
After that, all of the other contestants split up, racing into the depths of the hill to find “treasures.” Even the Petals had split up, going their separate ways in what looked like a prearranged search pattern.
So Tigu went exploring, picking a direction that felt right, and found her first vault. There had been a pit trap, spikes that shot from the ceiling, and one that had holes in the wall that dribbled out a bit of oil that failed to ignite.
It had been an amusing distraction. The next one’s traps had been better thought out. Then this one had the strange, screaming spirit beasts in it, burrowed into the walls.
They were interesting. A good test of awareness and ability.
She wished the Blade of Grass was here, but her father had ordered her to rest for the main tournament, saying that nothing in the hill would be useful for her.
While the fights weren’t that interesting, the little vaults were. She wanted to challenge the Blade of Grass, and see who could clear more of them!
She wandered through the dark forest. Occasionally, she would hear shouts of combat, or more screeches of beasts, but everything seemed well in hand.
Tigu came to an odd dip in the hill, and paused. She glanced over it for a moment, and frowned.
There was something about this one, something that twigged her instincts. She searched up and down it, until she found an odd groove, and pulled.
The hill made a grinding sound, as it opened.
A fel air blew out of the tunnel.
Grinning, Tigu descended into the pit.
“Ha! Truly, we have the luck of the heavens on our side, Loud Boy!” the bastard Rags enthused to Zang Wei.
He glared at the taller, rough man as Rags held up the pill bottle.
Truly, they were lucky. Somebody was opening up these vaults, defeating the traps and the Spirit Beasts, and then ignoring the treasure. It boggled the mind!
“Here, one for each of us. Never tell your boss he isn’t a kind and generous soul!”
“You aren’t my boss, Rags,” he bit out.
“Aww, don’t be like that! We drank together, Loud Boy!” the rough man cheered.
They had… only because he got challenged to a drinking contest, like a fool. Waking up with his cheek on Rag’s chest had been mortifying.
Zang Wei grumbled. If the man wasn’t so persistent, and good in a fight, he’d have tried to abandon him long ago. But alas, they had saved each other's lives on this dangerous, cursed hill.
And he may need some backup for the next part. Zang Wei remembered the ancient map he had found, and the warning about the guardian.
They exited the vault with the Initiate Soul Refining Pills. A fine prize, as they continued through the Hill of Torment. Zang Wei led them in the vague direction of the spot on the map. He would need to find the lever to open the secret hiding spot—
He paused at the open hole, his heart sinking.
Rags, on the other hand, just laughed.
“Lucky again!” he called, eagerly descending.
Once more, the traps were all sprung, the guardians defeated.
And when they came upon the final room, both of them gaped in shock. Webbing covered the walls, along with acid burns, and glowing green blood. There was a corpse, a massive, dismembered Five Venom Spider, still twitching.
And a woman, standing in the middle of the carnage.
Rou Tigu turned to them, a small splash of green blood on her cheek. Her yellow eyes pierced them both. But instead of the cold disdain that was there when she first beheld them, her eyes were wild with bloodlust and satisfaction.
“Loud Boy. Rags,” she greeted, and held up a spider leg as thick as Zang Wei’s bicep.
“Do you think this is edible?” she asked blandly.