‘Yes, yes, everything is good to go!’ Ri Zu declared from her position on the table, examining the unblemished skin. All of Xiulan’s students stared in wonder at their healed injuries. Deep punctures and envenomed bites that went halfway through limbs were gone like mist upon a lake burned off by the rising sun.
“This An Ran thanks you?” the wavering voice bagan. An Ran glanced at Xiulan, still bewildered at addressing a Spirit Beast. Xiulan nodded. An Ran took a breath then bowed. “An Ran thanks Ri Zu,” she said with more conviction.
Xuilan’s students still did not know how to act around the little Spirit Beast, but they were improving, and improving quickly even as they ate their breakfast and prepared for the day. They had even accepted the command to come to Ri Zu one at a time so that their wounds could be properly assessed without complaint. They took their cues from Xiulan, trying to mimic her calm demeanor, and easy interactions, in the face of the madness that was a friendly Spirit Beast. A Spirit Beast that could heal.
As Senior Sister had once said, ‘You get used to it’. Although they had adapted admirably, she didn’t think they would be ready to hear that Tigu herself was a Spirit Beast. World-shaking revelations should be done one at a time.
Xiulan finished her meal. She would have liked a bit more cooked spider, but the rest had been packed in salt or was being pickled. A few were left out, to see if the small amounts of venom would keep them from spoiling too much. Wa Shi would not get fresh limbs, but perhaps he would enjoy the surprisingly crab-like taste of the preserves.
Ri Zu, her apparent tolerance for interaction reached, swiftly retreated to the confines of Disciple Gou Ren’s shirt. Xiulan knew she had been on Tigu’s back for the prior matches, but there was no rule against it. Indeed, the tournament organisers would likely be overjoyed if there was some manner of Spirit Beast Tamer in the tournament. Ri Zu was, after all, “Just a spirit beast.” Any who laid eyes upon her during the tournament matches would likely assume she was Tigu’s possession. Not that there was danger of that, Ri Zu was quite good at remaining unnoticed.
The Petals were all in a fine mood, as they had set out once more for the arena. They had not really gotten any real treasures, but they had grown from the combat experience. And they seemed to notice the lingering after effects of Senior Sister’s medicine, the Wood aligned Qi from the Lowly Spiritual Herbs invigourating them further.
“Healed by a Spirit Beast!” Li boasted incredulously.
“Lower your voice, you fool.” Huyi grunted, his eyes abruptly darting around. “She is shy in the first place, and your voice will attract unnecessary attention. Do you know how rare someone like her is? People will either be clamouring to buy her, or attempt to steal her.”
Li looked around, chastised, and nodded his head rapidly. They climbed the stairs, as they separated from the Xong Brothers, and stepped once more into the arena.
Sitting calmly in the contestant’s stands, Xiulan watched the battles unfold. On the second true day of combat, things were still slow. Though half had been weeded out, the contestants were still trying to conserve their strength, and not reveal their techniques.
Well. Most did.
The two voices boomed as the combatants clashed. Xiulan’s eyebrow raised as Dong Chou and Zang Wei, no, Rags and Loud Boy, the two men who had visited last night, met in combat, massive grins on their faces. It reminded her a bit of the times she sparred with Tigu as they held nothing back.
It was quite admirable! They were probably lifelong friends, and it was mere bad luck that they met so soon.
Yet while their intensity was admirable… both had little technique. They brawled like they were in a pub, Qi turning wild strikes and sloppy haymakers into blows that could shatter rock. The crowd howled with glee at the knock-down, drag out brawl the rough looking man and the boy were engaged in. Their Qi was visible around them, as they drew on more and more of their strength. One was dark grey, a sluggish aura coming from the ragged man, and the other was bright blue and vibrant, twisting and leaping—both were streaked through with the occasional short of energy that showed that they had not fully refined the medicine they had taken from the Hill of Torment.
“They truly had the luck of the heavens with them to find such treasures.” Li grumbled from his seat.
“Did An Ran not share with us her spoils? Be grateful we found anything,” Xi Bu intoned, nodding his head at his fellow disciple. “Senior Sister Tigu came back empty handed.”
“Combat experience is worth as much as a mid grade treasure, sometimes,” Xiulan instructed. “Do not discount it. You faced a fearsome foe, and returned alive.”
The disciples nodded, and Xiulan turned back to the fight. Rags went for a cross, his grey ragged Aura coalescing around his fist. Loud Boy’s eyes widened at the danger, yet he forged onwards anyway. Xiulan nodded at the attempt. Being shorter, Loud Boy launched his own strike from the inside, attempting to push the blow up and away, his energetic blue Qi swirling. Yet it was all for naught. Rags was stronger, his arms resisting the attempt at deflection. The short boy grimaced, but he too pushed forwards, committing wholly to the strike.
Both men’s heads rocked back as fists hammered into jaws. For a brief moment they were still, glaring around the fist buried in their respective faces before they went flying backwards. The crowd roared in approval, as Rags rolled to his feet, while Loud Boy managed to almost seem graceful as he too regained his footing. She heard Tigu laugh from her own seat, her voice booming across the stands.
“Go on, Rags, Loud Boy!” she hollered like the crowd.
Both men roared again, meeting in a clash that sent a small shockwave through the air. They traded blows. Sharp jabs and wild haymakers that had Xiulan’s fellow disciples rolling their eyes. It was completely and utterly amateur. Barely any technique, and all instinct, yet the crowd was loving every moment.
Both were panting by the end of it, their auras dying down to flickering sparks. Rags had a split lip and an obviously broken nose while Loud Boy squinted through a black eye and spat a tooth onto the ground. They sized each other up, smiles slowly crossing their faces
They both got into their stances, preparing for one final blow.
Xiulan’s eyes sharpened. There was something off. Loud Boy’s eyes closed for a brief moment, and when he breathed out, his breath came out as steam.
Both men exploded into motion, Loud Boy’s stance completely different than it once was. The transition from pub brawler to Adept was surprising and instant, and Loudboy met the oncoming strike. Both of his hands were clasped together in a wedge, as he shoved upwards, breaking through the blow and deflecting it wide.
Rags, wholly committed to the strike, could not adjust in time. His body barreled forward as Loud Boy stomped his foot into the ground,cracking the stone, and sending up a shockwave of dust. As his namesake, let out a booming shout.
[BREAK THE GATES!]
A devastating double palm strike slammed into Rag’s chest, as a coiling dragon tail formed briefly around Loudboy. Spit flew from Rag’s mouth as his eyes rolled up back into his head, as he was launched through the air.
There was a brief moment of silence, as Loud Boy fell to a knee panting.
Then, a wall of noise welled up from the crowd, as Rags did not get back up.
“Zang Wei defeats Dong Chou! What an exciting match this was! What power was unleashed, after finding hidden treasures upon the Hill of Torment!” The podium exploded. “What a match—and what's this?!”
Loud Boy approached his fallen friend. The man suddenly startled, coming back to consciousness and groaning. Loud Boy offered him an arm. The older man stared at it, his eyes wide… and snorted, reaching up to grab the limb. The younger boy helped the ragged-looking man up, then to his surprise, Rags raised the boy’s arm high in the air. Loud Boy flushed.
“Haha! Such camaraderie between sworn brothers!”
The crowd roared again, as the taller man slung an arm around Loud Boy. They glanced briefly at Tigu, who gave them one of Master Jin’s ‘thumbs up’. Both flushed at her bright smile, offering gestures of their own. They limped off the arena together, clearly bickering all the way.
Xiulan watched them go, amused. Steadily, she rose, knowing it was her turn next.
“Next, Cai Xiulan, the Demon-Slaying Orchid!” The voice boomed, and if possible, the crowd roared louder.
Her opponent was a member of Grand Ravine. For centuries, a rival to her sect. The title of strongest in the Azure Hills had been theirs for many years.
The nervousness on the young man’s face was palpable. He was a newer recruit. Perhaps some rising star. He carefully set his large straw hat and cloak aside, as his sectmates tried to encourage him. Several tattoos crawled up his arms, a legacy from a tribe conquered so long ago none remembered their name. He calmed his breathing, as he raised his weapon, a hooked sickle with a rope. A tool used for climbing the trees that stuck out of the sides of the Grand Ravine, turned into a devastating weapon. He swallowed thickly. His legs stopped troubling, and when he opened his eyes, they were pure and clear.
Xiulan bowed earnestly in respect for his resolve.
And as the gong sounded, he surged forward, eyes intent and blade ready. Not reckless, but as measured as he could be.
Xiulan gave his courage the respect it deserved, and then struck him once. Not a gentle push like the first competitor, but with a closed fist.
The young man toppled. An inglorious defeat. The crowd’s chants of Demon Slaying Orchid were mixed with insulting jeers at the fallen. Her eyes met the Young Master of the Grand Ravine’s sect. He was frustrated and angry, but as their eyes met, he offered her a brief nod.
Better bruised pride, than a broken body.
Xiulan turned away.
She could feel the eyes of the crowd upon her. The intent of thousands was a palpable thing. Yet she sensed one pair was more... focused than the rest. Hungry. Frowning, she turned her eyes to where she felt the gaze stemmed from. In the box of honour, flying the standard of the Shrouded Mountain, a man lounged upon fine silks. A courtesan was stroking his hair. His fellows too were intent upon her, yet none of them left her with the same skin-crawling sensation his gaze did.
She locked eyes with him.
Ice crawled up her spine.
“And Cai Xiulan administers another swift defeat! Was there any other outcome possible?” The voice boomed across the arena, the sound breaking her out of her impromptu staring contest and she returned to her seat.
“Rou Tigu Versus Jiang Jiang!” The voice of the announcer called out as the next match was to begin.
Xiulan frowned. Zang Li of the Shrouded Mountain. She knew little of the man, save for the fact that he apparently enjoyed his courtesans and was a Young Master of the Shrouded Mountain. The sect that could single handedly dominate every Sect of the Azure Hills, should it decide to level its might against them.
Xiulan shook her head, and returned her attention to the fight in progress. Tigu was once more seemingly content with trading pointers—until her expression abruptly soured after her opponent shouted something at her.
A tanned fist instantly shattered his guard, sending him from the middle of the arena slamming into the barrier over the stands, which flickered fitfully at the sudden impact.
The girl huffed with annoyance then turned to return to her seat without a second glance.
“And then he said that my tanned skin was ugly! Ugly! He is a man with eyes, yet he cannot see!” Tigu complained, a mouthful of food not impending her angry diatribe. They were seated at a two person table together in the cramped shop. Separated, like she always was, from the rest.
Xiulan nodded. “Indeed, he had eyes, but could not see,” she said with a small smile as she took a bite of her own meatbun from Chao Baozi. These “Contender Buns” were quite good, and they were very invigorating. Xiulan smacked her lips together. The ingredients seemed to have a slight amount of Qi in them— enough so that they refilled one’s reserves just slightly.
Less so than taking medicine or for that matter the food served at Master Jin’s home, but for those who could not not afford reagents, this shop would be absolutely invaluable.
Xiulan swallowed, and looked at the small, cramped table where her fellow disciples were seated. Eyes roved over her students. There had been two victories, and two losses amongst them. An Ran had delivered a terrific strike, and came out nearly unscathed while Huyi had taken a beating. The black eye and bandages around small cuts stood out strongly. Both of their faces were flushed with victory as they recounted their fights from their perspective to the others—Yun Ren was showing off images he had taken of their battles from the stands. An Ran was talking animatedly with Junior Brother Gou Ren, who was smiling at her.
Xiulan nodded to herself in approval.
Xi Bu was as calm as always. He had given it his best, put up a fine showing against a superior foe, and seemed content with his defeat. Li, on the other hand, was sitting sullenly and nursing his broken arm. A foolish overextension had cost him, Xiulan hoped this would teach him a lesson on being over eager.
Tigu sighed. “At least the next match should be better. Water Lady is strong, right?” she asked.
Xiulan nodded. “Indeed, Liu Xianghua is a canny and formidable foe who uses—”
“Don’t want to know,” Tigu interrupted. “I want to see what she's like, on my own.”
The cat turned girl popped the last of her food into her mouth and went to join the others, shoving herself in so she could lean over Huyi. She loudly demanded to see the images recorded from her own bout.
Xiulan smirked, and shook her head in amusement.
She closed her eyes taking in the moment, savouring the taste of her food while shouting and laughter echoed from the table nearby.
Such a loud, and rowdy bunch they were being. Like the soldiers she once knew.
An old longing welled in her chest. A desire to sit with them at their table, and damn her status and position.
She looked at them all for a moment then Xiulan acted on it.
She stood from her own place and approached the other table.
Her hips met An Ran’s as she shoved her over. Her Junior Sister’s eyes bugged out, as she collapsed entirely onto Gou Ren, and Xiulan took her seat.
Both flushed crimson as An Ran scabbled back to a sitting position.. She was squeezed against his side and Xiulan could see that she didn’t exactly try to push away too fast.
Gou Ren gave Xiulan a look. Xiulan smiled innocently at him then deliberately pushed slightly more onto the bench. The rest of the table went silent, her students suddenly tongue tied.
“Ah, Senior Sister, um—” They tried to be polite.
“Yun Ren! Do you have one of my opponent's face?!” Tigu demanded, disregarding the sudden awkwardness.
“You bet I do. Look at ‘im!” Yun Ren shot back. An image formed on the table, of a man screaming, his eyes wide with shock.
The Petals stared at her for a moment in shock, before Tigu’s uproarious laughter got them smiling too.
“He squeaked like a large Ri Zu!” Tigu declared. There was a small squawk of laughter, as her little head poked out. Gou Ren handed her back some of his meat bun, and the little one disappeared again.
Slowly, her juniors started to relax as the boisterous Tigu and Xong brothers welcomed her with their usual attitude—until a spectacularly drunk man outside started to play a few halting notes on his pipa.
The Xong brothers grinned, recognizing the familiar tune.
An Ran looked offended at the vulgar song, while her other students tried to hide their own amusement.
Xiulan bit her lips, and very carefully stopped herself from humming along.
The fact that she knew all the words for this song… well, she needed to know her students a bit better before she could reveal that, and be in a more private place.
“The ol’ spry whore, and the donkey that came in her backdoOOOoor~!” The drunk man shouted cheerily.