An Ran reflected upon her day, as she walked back to the manor with her fellows. They were silent, contemplating what had happened, and staring at Tigu with evaluating eyes.
They knew Tigu was strong, but seeing her go all out had been enlightening. Yet that was not the main thing on their minds.
Tigu gesticulated wildly, and the small spirit beast rat on her shoulder would either nod her head, or bat at the girl’s ear.
Senior Sister glanced at the rat, but there was no surprise on her face. Which meant she knew about it beforehand. She seemed completely at ease, even as An Ran’s mind whirled,
An Ran rubbed at the bandages on her wounds. Small hands pulling it tight. Whatever the Spirit Beast had put on it, it itched a bit.
A Spirit Beast that had tended to her wounds. An Ran had barely even seen a Spirit Beast, before the Hil of Torment. And Tigu had one that tended to wounds?
“And how did such a thing happen, Junior Sister?” the Young Mistress asked, as she stared at An Ran, her eyes concerned. She startled, tearing her eyes away from the rat.
Swallowing thickly, An Ran began to recount her day.
It had started off well enough. In the morning, Tigu had been excitedly looking through a scroll on the monsters of the Hill of Torment, pointing to the various drawn pictures and declaring them worthy foes, while Senior Sister had explained the spiritual nature of the hill to her.
She had even come to see them off, along with the two brothers. An Ran was fairly certain nothing untoward would happen. In the single day that she knew them, they had comported themselves well despite their rustic origins.
“Go, and return safely,” Senior Sister had said warmly to the Petals, while Gou Ren had pulled Tigu into a headlock and Yun Ren ruffled her hair as their farewells.
It was so very easy to forget she could trade blows with Senior Sister when she acted like this.
All of the Petals had steeled themselves and set off to the misty hill.
They had already decided upon a searching pattern that kept them close enough to come to each other’s aid, if things went wrong, each of them carrying a horn in case of a true emergency. It was no transmission stone, but using one upon the hill would be an exercise in futility, as the strange eddies of Qi disrupted any attempt to speak.
It had not been particularly fruitful. The dark, obscuring trees, and occasional Ripper attacks left her blood thundering in her veins, despite attempting to mimic Senior Sister’s serene presence.
Though they only came in packs of twos or threes, which was odd. Senior Sister had said that the average pack size was generally greater.
For hours they had searched, occasionally calling out to each other to confirm their locations. At one point, An Ran encountered a member of the Misty Lake Sect but after a tense moment they had just nodded and went on their way. Until at last, she had received some fortune. A small patch of spiritual grass, hidden under a fallen tree. She had collected every sprig, carefully uprooting the entire patch. A modest reward, but a reward none the less.
Just as she finished putting the sprigs in her pack, she heard the alarm sound. The horn that Li had squeaked to a stop.
It was not something to sound lightly, and An Ran redoubled her pace.
She dashed through the trees, leaping over fallen branches. Huyi dashed from the side, his eyes grim, while Xi Bu formed up on her other side, his eyes sharp and focused.
The horn choked out another blare, as they pinpointed his position, erupting into the clearing.
They could barely believe their eyes, at what they beheld. Li tossed his horn aside, his face panicked. The Man-sized Five Venom Spider hissed. Li’s blade met ironhard carapace as legs speared at him relentlessly, and virulent poison dripped from the spider’s fangs.
“Go!” An Ran shouted, snapping them out of their stupor. She got two nods in response.
Huyi leapt onto the creature's back, attempting to get his sword in between the armor plates, while An Ran and Xi Bu aimed for the joints. The spider was fast, however, it screamed and thrashed, spoiling their blows. Swords skittered off hardened carapace, as the beast reacted. Legs that were as sharp as lances lashed out, scoring a small gash along An Ran’s arm, while Huyi was thrown into a tree.
But the beast was outnumbered. Carefully, methodically, they managed to wear it down. Repeated strikes began to make small gashes in the spider's armor.
An Ran finally managed to drive her blade into a gap on the spider’s knee, sending the beast shrieking and staggering. Xi Bu slid on his knees underneath the creature, and struck upwards burying his blade in the gaps in its armor.
The spider screamed again as the blades found purchase. An Ran repeated Huyi’s maneuver, leaping onto the thrashing thing’s back to get her blade in between the plates of chitin in its abdomen.
The five venom spider let loose one last shriek as ichor spilled from its wounds and then it perished.
They had to push it off Xi Bu, who was absolutely covered in ichor. They all were.
An Ran couldn’t help it. She started giggling. “You have the same colour hair as Li now,” she told the small boy, managing to get a grin out of the normally stoic member of their group.
Sweaty and shaken, Li said, “I thank my fellow disciples for their help,” as serious as An Ran had ever heard him. Li was covered in scratches from the battle and blood flood from a large gash on his cheek.
But he was alive. She nodded at his gratitude, as Xi Bu clapped his hand on Li’s shoulder. An Ran turned to Huyi, to hear his normally snarky response, but her fellow petal was not smiling, or even paying attention to their rescued fellow. He was simply staring up at the canopy, his dead fish eyes wide.
An Ran glanced up at where he was looking in the pitch black branches as they rattled in the breeze—
But there was no wind.
The canopy was shaking. Ruby eyes burned in the darkness and the clicking of hundreds of armored legs.
“We need to go, now,” Huyi said with a calm that belied their situation.
Fleeing and showing one’s back to the enemy was often considered shameful. An Ran and her fellow disciples ran without hesitation.
The surging tide of chitin was not to be denied. The smaller, faster spiders flung themselves at the cultivators. The disciples turned and swung the best they could, spiders exploded into green gore as the Petals cut them down. They were lucky the smaller spider's carapaces were not hard enough to resist blades.
But it slowed them down.
The heavier, lumbering forms descended from the trees, letting out keening shrieks as they thundered towards the disciples.
An Ran wondered, for a brief moment, why the beasts screamed. Normal spiders didn’t make any noise at all.
They could not run. Basic pack instincts sent some of the smaller spiders skittering past, dropping down on sticky webs to cut off the retreat. They had to turn. They had to fight.
They moved as best they could into a defensive formation, guarding each other.
[Verdant Blade Sword Arts, First Form: A Single Blade of Grass]
And then she was fighting for her life. Her sword struck, as a smaller spider jumped at her knees. She dodged around legs that were like spears, and drove her sword up into the maw of one of the creatures. Around her the battle raged.
“I hate Spiders!” Li screamed hysterically, but his form was still remarkably crisp, even though the whites of his eyes were showing. Huyi and Xi Bu both fought with grim determination, their eyes focused, and breathing as even as they could make it.
Yet it was a losing battle. She heard Bu gasp with pain as a pointed leg stabbed into his calf.
An Ran was distracted by the sound and her moment of inattention cost her, as one of the larger spiders leapt, bearing her to the ground. She barely got her arm up, as the fangs sank in deep.
An Ran bit back a scream, as she felt her arm start to burn from the spiders infamous five venoms. Her veins spasmed, as the venom took hold.
An Ran contemplated if this was the end, as the spider tore its fangs out, then reared up again, ready to finish its prey.
A small, tanned fist slammed into the beast's center of mass.
The spider’s iron hard carapace crumpled like paper as it was flung violently off An Ran to slam against a tree and explode, painting the forest glowing green.
“Hello, Smaller Blade of Grass, are you well?” Rou Tigu asked, her face alight with concern. There was another shout, as a rough-looking man and a boy entered the clearing, both of them kicking the spiders off of Li.
‘Of course she isn’t well!’ A tiny voice chastised, as a small black form leapt from Tigu’s shoulder.
An Ran stared as a tiny rat pressed two paws to her arm.
‘This one is Ri Zu, please forgive her for not introducing herself earlier,’ the rat said, bowing apologetically. She cocked her head to the side, and frowned. An Ran felt green, medicinal qi dabbing at the wound. ‘Does Ri Zu have your permission to help?’
An Ran nodded, feeling slightly dizzy. Her arm started to tingle.
There were several other disgusting splattering noises, and the spiders’ assault slowed, recoiling from the sudden interruption.
The rat, strangely, pulled down a waterskin, and a piece of chalk, as the treetops started to shake again. Huyi managed to stand, looking disheveled, while Li was dragged over by the rough looking man, who stared openly at the Spirit Beast.
An Ran’s eyes cast about, one hand on her sword. A few other spiders tried their luck, but Tigu simply swatted them out of the air.
‘Master’s modifications are working well,’ the small voice said, intrigued. An Ran glanced back down, and winced. There was a copper wire sticking out of the bite mark, and poking into a waterskin, surrounded by a small chalk formation. The throbbing lessened. ‘Poison may be siphoned like demonic Qi, but only while fresh, it seems. It did not travel far.’
“They are going to be fine?” Tigu asked.
The rat nodded. ‘They shall need some bandages, and poultice, but this is well within Master’s medical kit’s capabilities!’
Tigu’s worried expression once more melted into a cheerful smile, as the scuttling legs got louder.
“Do you think Mistress would want the venom glands?” she asked, turning around as more and more ruby eyed spiders approached.
The Rat working on An Ran’s arm pondered. ‘Ri Zu would harvest a few, yes!’
“Loud Boy, Rags. Make Sure Ri Zu works in peace,” Tigu commanded. Both the men who had come along with Tigu seemed to find the rat just as strange as An Ran, but both of them nodded, watching Tigu with clear admiration.
A spider bigger than a horse toppled a tree as it burst into the clearing.
Tigu took a breath.
Yellow eyes sharpened into slits. A snarling tiger rose behind her. Yet An Ran felt no fear. There was no crushing, tyrannical aura.
Instead, she just felt safe.
The enormous spider spasmed.
Five Blades of Qi formed above Tigu’s fist.
“Let's have some fun together!” the orange haired girl said, her smile turning from cheerful to cruel.
An Ran watched the carnage unfold, as a spirit beast carefully tied a bandage around her arm.
“…Thank you?” she whispered.
The rat looked around at the people who were staring at her, and took a deep breath.
‘You are welcome,’ the rat said with another bow.
“…Hm! After so long hiding, Ri Zu went and introduced herself properly! She didn’t even say anything, she was just off my shoulders and helping, like Mistress said one should!” Tigu reported, around a mouthful of spiderleg.
The rat squeaked sullenly, from atop Tigu’s shoulder, partially hiding in her hair again.
It was a shy creature, squeaking with embarrassment when Li had tried to thank it. After the creature had finished tending to them, it had retreated back to Tigu’s shirt.
Their walk and explanation had taken them all the way back to the manor, where Tigu began to share out some of her “bounty” in the guest room. The other two men were there, off to the side, and looking around at the furnishings curiously.
An Ran scratched at her bandaged arm again. It was really itchy. She raised a bit of leg, and took a bite. It did taste quite good. A bit like black pepper freshwater crab she had once had.
Senior Sister nodded, as she took her own bite. “I believe Wa Shi will enjoy this greatly, Tigu,” she said before turning to the two others in the room.
“And you, Zang Wei, Dong Chou, have the gratitude of our Verdant Blade Sect. I thank you for your assistance.” She stood, and bowed formally to the boy and the man, offering them a warm smile. Both of them flushed crimson at having her attention, after sitting off to the side awkwardly for most of the time back at the manor.
“Ahaha! It’s no trouble, no trouble, Miss Cai! Just think of us kindly later on, yeah?” the rough man said, grinning.
The boy beside him nodded rapidly.
“Besides, I gotta go tell my people I’m back, eh? The regular conquering hero! We’ll get out of your hair, besides, me and Loud Boy here have some things to share out.” He rattled something in his pocket.
The boy, who was looking annoyed at the other man, and like he was about to object, suddenly stopped.
“Yes, Lady Cai, we must go. We thank the Verdant Blade Sect for their hospitality!” he shouted.
He was quite loud.
“Have a good night, Loud Boy, Rags!” Tigu said, waving.
“Goodbye, Young Miss!”
“Have a good day, Miss Rou!” both men called, before they left.
And they were left in silence. An Ran looked around at her fellows, all of their eyes downcast. They had a poor showing today, against the hordes of spiders. And worse, all of them were injured. They would surely bring shame to their sect tomorrow!
An Ran grimaced.
“You all did very well today, to face such numbers of five venom spiders, and you must all be tired,” Senior Sister said. “I would bid you all to rest, so you will be fit enough tomorrow.”
An Ran nodded. She started trying to get up, but her legs were a bit wobbly. She clenched her hand into a fist, to stop it from itching the wound on her arm.
“Ah, miss Ri Zu, I do not mean to question your expertise, but is it supposed to be itching this much?” Huyi asked, frowning at his arm.
The rat nodded. ‘It’s almost done, then,’ she squeaked.
“Almost done?” Huyi asked.
Ri Zu nodded. The little creature seemed to debate something for a moment before she carefully hopped down from Tigu’s shoulder, and scampered up to Huyi. Small, deft hands untied bandages, and scraped away some of the poultice.
Revealing a wound not even a quarter of the size it once was.
Li’s eyes widened, and he went for his own bandage, eager to see what was underneath.
A tiny tail lashed out like a whip, and cracked against the back of his hand.
The rat landed from where she had lept, and placed her hands on her hips.
‘Leave it on until tomorrow!’ Ri Zu scolded. Li recoiled from the rat’s glare.
She carefully tied up Huyi’s arm again… And then seemed to realise everybody was looking at her. She froze, and her eyes flicked back to Tigu, before she coughed, and cleared her throat, sketching a short bow.
‘It is very nice to meet you all,’ the rat whispered tentatively.
An Ran and her companions bowed back, a little awkwardly.
It was very strange, bowing to a rat.