‘What is going on? Who were those people? Why are we waiting here?’ Yin asked as she scratched at her ear. She glanced towards the window, where the Great Master was sitting at a table, as he had been for the past few hours.
Bi De sighed. ‘I do not know. They spoke cryptically, and what they said was not well received by the Master.’
Bi De’s Great Master was upset.
This was evident to all of them. The Master rested his chin in one hand and absentmindedly drummed fingers upon the table. He sat cross legged on the floor gazing out the window. The city was shrouded in shadows, the sky dark as the morning sun had faded giving way to churning storm clouds.
His back was not straight. He was slouched, seeming diminished… almost small, a far cry from his normal presence. His face was twisted into an expression Bi De did not like either.
Yin’s question had been a good one, however. These men, to inflict such a mood upon his Great Master were undoubtedly wicked! He had half a mind to declare them interlopers, and strike them down for their words!
Yet his Master had agreed to what the man had requested. He had been shaken by whatever revelation he had received. The Plum Blossom agent, for that much he had gathered from listening, had quickly led them to rooms prepared for their use. The Master had been still and silent since retreating into himself. Bi De could not fathom what troubled him.
Yin, Miantao and he had been waiting restlessly in the other part of the room, settled together on the bed’s silk sheets, with some of their various belongings packed. Miantiao sighed as the drumming of the Master’s fingers on the table intensified. ‘We gain nothing by waiting around, now do we? A question now may save misery later.’
Bi De nodded. He was loath to interrupt his Great Master’s thoughts and he hoped his lord would forgive him but he could not wait any longer.
Bi De hopped up onto the table. He knew he looked in a right state, with his feathers puffed out with concern.
‘Great Master, you seem unwell. What is it these men said to you, to concern you so?’ he questioned directly.
His Master jumped in his seat, his eyes went wide at the sudden interruption to his contemplation. He glanced distractedly around the room, at all his disciples, as if just noticing they were there for the first time.
The Master smiled, crookedly, and began to scratch at the back of his head. His eyes flicked to each of them, and he gave a pained grimace at their inquisitive faces.
“Ah! Uh… sorry for zoning out like that. Just… well, just thinking about things.” He breathed in deep before he let out another sigh. “But as to your question… well, they said they were sent here by the Cloudy Sword Sect to set up a meeting with one of their members, a cultivator named Lu Ri. I knew him once.”
Bi De froze at the name. He remembered it. The Cloudy Sword Sect. They had nearly slain his Great Master and forced him to begin the journey that led to Fa Ram.
‘The what?’ Yin asked, confused. Miantiao and Yin were befuddled, as Bi De’s Qi surged, his blades of Holy Moonlight begging to be unleashed.
These vile interlopers dared to show their faces?! They had the gall, after what they had done, to demand a meeting?! They courted death!
Rage surged through Bi de as he opened his mouth to call his friends and companions to arms. They would set out into the city and demand answers from these… lackeys.
A warm hand planted itself on Bi De’s head, ceasing all thought of vengeance.
“I guess you two wouldn’t know about all that,” his Master said, looking at Miantiao and Yin. “I’ll tell you the story”
Bi De grumbled as his wattles were stroked allowing his rage to dissipate. His Great Master seemed eager to tell this profound tale, so he let himself be pulled into his Master’s lap, as the two newest disciples glanced at each other, and settled in.
His voice was warm and calm as he began the grand tale. His Great Master was quite good at telling stories. As he told them of his journey his distracted tapping on the table stopped, and his slouched demeanour disappeared.
This tale was one that Bi De treasured. It was one that made him feel like he truly understood his Master. He heard his master once more ask the question.
“What was the point of that life? What was the point of that race to the top?”
And he could tell, it was the same for their newest companions. Miantiao closed his eyes, taking in his Great Master’s words. His head nodded slightly, his face full of regret. He understood without prompting.
Yin, on the other wing, simply had her head cocked to the side, listening intently, but she seemed confused. Like Tigu, she still did not fully understand the wisdom of his words.
Yet beneath the wisdom, there was fear. The fact that an existence that was more Powerful than the Great Master existed, was still something that Bi De had trouble comprehending, even after seeing the flashes of the visions in the crystal.
He listened intently, as his Master told him once more of his journey to the Azure Hills.
“And that's why I left,” I finished. It was always a bit draining, to tell that story… But it had taken my mind off things for a moment. I’d felt for a while like I was circling the drain. The questions haunted me. Why here? Why would he want anything to do with me after I left?
‘And now…this man wishes to meet with you?’ Noodle asked after a moment.
I nodded. Noodle hissed with distaste, and I grimaced.
“They’re not… Well, they’re not all bad,” I began. It would be doing people a disservice to say that.
Before Xiulan, yeah, I would have said they were all bad. That they were terrible people. I had thought all the cultivators must be crazy. But they obviously weren’t. Some of them were downright, I hesitate to say nice, but Lu Ri had done right by me.
“Lu Ri, who I think was the one who sent the message, gave me back my money and let me go. I, well, I didn’t think I would ever hear from them again. Why would I? Why would the powerful Cloudy Sword Sect come to the Azure Hills? Why would they be looking for me? I… well, I don’t really know. It could be for the shoots of the Lowly Spiritual Herbs… but I don’t think it is. Could he have not written down that I paid? Maybe, but I don’t think he’d lie about something like that.”
My thoughts spilled out to them. I knew I was rambling.
‘So… what's the plan?’ Yin asked.
I paused, and looked at her. Huh?
‘Do we fight him if he's bad?’ Yin asked aggressively. ‘I think I should be able to distract him.’
She stood on her hind legs, and nodded her head, suddenly eager. ‘If he's bad, we’re going to have to defend our home and our friends, right?’
Big D nodded, while Miantiao snorted.
‘You brats.’ The snake sighed. ‘This Miantiao shall add his strength, meagre though it may be.’
‘Indeed.’ Big D agreed. ‘We shall support our Master. If he is a friend, we shall give him face, if he is an enemy…’
They all turned to me, staring at me with eager eyes. Ready to stand beside me. Ready to jump to my defense.
They wanted to help me out, like I had taught them.
I swallowed thickly
An image flashed through my head. An image of what happened when things went wrong.
There was blood. Blood, and death. Broken. I remembered the feeling of it
“I will be meeting him alone.” I was speaking before I was conscious of it. “And…well, you guys have your own stuff to do, don’t you?” I asked with the best smile I could put on. “You have Master Gen to see, about the crystal.”
I couldn’t let it happen to them.
“You guys should get that done. Go see the tournament, and make sure Tigu’er hasn’t done anything silly. Maybe see how Xiulan is doing too.”
I sent a rooster off into the wilderness alone.
I let Tigu go to the tournament.
But only when I knew that they would be stronger than whatever they faced. That they would be safe. Or at least safe enough
Fear. In the end, all it was was fear. I wasn’t really afraid for myself, I don’t think. I could take some lumps. I could bow my head and press my face into the dirt. I could grovel if I had to. But I couldn’t stand the thought of them getting hurt from this,
I wouldn’t let them do that. I couldn’t stop myself from forcing them away from it.
I swallowed again.
“Go,” I commanded, my voice as firm as I could make it.
There was silence. Big D looked like he couldn’t believe it. He glanced at the floor before gazing back up at me, his throat working. Yin’s eyes were narrow, as she huffed in irritation. Noodle’s gaze knowing.
The snake knew exactly what I was doing. I couldn’t quite look him in the eye. He grimaced and glanced to the side.
‘…as you command, Great Master,’ Big D whispered finally.
He turned to walk towards where the crystal was. His steps dragged, as he began to pack.
I turned away from them, and looked out the window again at the churning clouds, trying to stomach my own words.
I had probably lost some respect here. They might even dislike me for it. But it was for the best.
If it would protect them, then that was fine.
He was his Master’s Loyal Servant.
He who was given the spark. He who was nurtured without reservation. Raised above all others.
He would do as he was commanded. Bi De could do no less even if his heart was lead.
Yin’s voice whispered harshly in his ears, yet he barely registered the discontent she expressed. She was grumbling, and shooting dirty looks back at the Great Master.
His Master wanted the best for them. He wished to protect them as much as he was able.
His Master’s eyes were distant and stormy, reflecting the dark clouds above Pale Moon Lake. They looked far too much like Miantiao’s when the rooster had first met him.
Words came to him unbidden as he carefully packed his things. ‘You should help somebody, when they need it.’
His Master’s command had pained him, yet he could not disobey. He obviously had a reason for sending them away.
Was his potential foe that vile? Were they so useless to him?
He glanced back to his Master and more words surfaced from his memories.
‘You don’t need to face the heavens alone.’
The rations were secured once more. He took out the waterproof covering, and laid it carefully over the items.
It would not take them long to get everything in order. They had been packed and ready to go already.
All that was left was the crystal. Bi De checked it, as he always did. To ensure the glow was not duller. To make sure that the cracks had not grown deeper.
He remembered his mission. His desire to find out what secrets there were hidden in the Azure Hills.
He stared at the dull blue crystal. The fragmented vision of a man stared back from the past.
A man who had shouldered everything alone. Who had tried to fight alone. Who had in the end lain broken and alone, mourning his choices,as the world was torn asunder.
His Great Master would do the same. He would try to shoulder the weight of the world.
His Great Master who always said he was fallible. That there were times when he would be wrong.
‘Everybody needs support, sometimes. Especially the people who seem to want it the least.’
The rooster stared at the fractured crystal.
‘I’d rather help somebody and be burned, then never have helped anybody at all.’
His Master’s teachings were worth more than what his master thought they were. They had given Bi De his friends and comrades. Sister Ri Zu. Yin, Miantiao, Zhang Fei the Torrent Rider, and even the Blaze Bears. He had applied his lessons, and had always been richer for them.
Maybe if Bi De stayed, this Lu Ri and the Cloudy Sword would slay him. It was not a sure thing..
But he’d rather help out as he could then not help at all.
Bi De made his choice.
‘Great Master. You once said, the greatest gift we have in our lives is choice,’ Bi De whispered. His voice was steady, as he gazed upon the crystal, held in his wings.
He heard the chair creak, as his master turned to him.
He raised the gem, the treasure of his travels. ‘Months of journey. Hours of contemplation. Hardship that I dislike to remember,’ Bi De whispered. ‘The secrets to a bygone age.’
He stared at it for a moment and then cast it aside, negligently. The crystal clinked ominously, as it rolled to bump against the wall. He folded his wings before him, and bowed deeply.
‘Forgive this Bi De. But your humble disciple must choose to disobey your command. I will not leave you.’
Yin yelped, and Miantiao’s head whipped around. Bi De saw his master, silhouetted against the dark sky.
‘I know. I understand you wish to protect us. But you taught us to help our friends who were in need. And I, your disciple cannot, in good conscience, obey your command to leave. Not when I believe you are in need of help.’
Bi De held himself steadily. Proud and unbowed.
‘Please, allow us to stand tall at your side, come whatever may.’
The crystal could wait. It could shatter into a thousand pieces, for all Bi De cared.
For the first time in his life, he purposefully disobeyed his Master.
They stared at each other. One calm, his face set. The other staring back, eyes cloudy and dark, filled with sorrow and pride.
I had ended up spending the night at the inn, while we waited for Lu Ri. A quite comfortable night, and most of the following day. But eventually, I was called. Lu Ri was near.
I walked through the city towards my meeting with Lu Ri. There was a rooster on my shoulder, a snake curled around my arm, and a rabbit stuffed down my shirt.
I felt really good today. Maybe it was that strange recurring dream I had, the one about throwing mud balls at that kid. Before, they always made me wake up feeling a bit sad, but today? I was feeling on top of the world.
Maybe it was a bad idea to have these guys come with me to the meeting. Maybe it wasn’t. But I had said that they were free to choose.
And to be honest, I was proud of Big D for saying no to me. It was a bit strange to say that, but… it was nice to know that someone loved you enough to call you out on your bullshit.
I would respect their choice. For good or ill. I’d face what was to come. Nah. We’d face what was to come.