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The repurposed Pill Furnace closed with a soft clunk, its long smokestack properly affixed. “It’s as ready as it’ll ever be,” Xianghua’s brother said with a sigh as he wiped off his hands of soot and grease. “Be careful with it, okay? You can’t push it too hard.”

Xianghua smiled at him, her hair tied back and her hands similarly greasy, as she checked the fuel one last time. “Indeed. Three may have exploded from my might, but this one shall last!” she declared.

Normally, the response would have him laughing at her over the top boast, but instead Bowu turned to face his sister with a worried look on his face. “Please be careful?” he asked, rubbing at his crippled leg.

Her eyes softened. She reached out and pulled him into a hug, inside the small shack on the outer courtyard that was their workshop. It was cramped, but neither of them minded.

“Yes. I’ll be careful,” she whispered.

The boy sighed, and pulled back from the hug, staring at her with a gimlet eye.

”I’m sure you will be. Just like you’re careful with your actions and words,” Bowu muttered.

“Indeed, I am a paragon of temperance. Thank you for noticing, little brother.” She puffed out her chest, her hands still on his shoulders.

“Like when you challenged Miss Cai?” he deadpanned. “She seemed pretty annoyed with you.”

She stared at those hungry, desperate eyes. Xiulan’s movements were off. She was unsettled, with an almost manic energy about her.

“You’re courting death,” Xianghua told her rival bluntly.

Cai Xiulan’s eyes narrowed, and her face twisted.

“I knew exactly what I was doing,” she stated primly.

“And the fact that you tweak Father’s nose every chance you get?” he whispered.

She shrugged again.

“I want to live my life without any regrets,” she said. “If Father wants me to leave you alone, he can try. I seem to recall he failed the last time.”

You threatened to destroy your own cultivation.”

Xianghua waved her hand negligently. “He hasn’t had any luck with his concubines. I’m all he has.”

Her brother sighed again. “So, what do you plan to do, anyway?”

“I’ll go as far as I can. I’ll defeat this Rou Tigu and have my rematch with Xiulan. I may have fallen behind… But I’ll surely rise, just like she has.” Her voice was firm and proud. “Maybe this year, I’ll convince the Blade of Grass to come drink with me. Or perhaps I’ll hunt down her friend. He hasn’t visited, and this Young Mistress finds herself most insulted!”

Her brother rolled his eyes. “What did you say his name was again?”

“Gou Ren. A handsome and upstanding gentleman. You’d like him.”

Her brother stared at her blankly. “Tall guy? Looks a bit like a monkey?”

“A Monkey? No, he looks like the depictions of the great Sage Wukong!” Xianghua refuted.

Her brother arched an eyebrow, finally smiling at her.

“A monkey. But well, he's not too bad, I suppose...”

“You met him?” She asked excitedly, shoving her face into his personal space, and nearly bowling him off his chair.

=============================

Her opponent was strong. Her opponent was fast. Her opponent required absolutely everything she could give, or else she would lose.

It truly was a shame to reveal this so early, but there was no point in losing without showing her strength.

Liu Xianghua absolutely refused to be anything less than her best.

The air screamed. Her furnace pumped, reacting with the reagents within, and spewing out the clouds of steam.

Xianghua brought her arm back, coating her weapon in Qi and steam.Her sword Thrust forward.

Rou Tigu, her eyes wide, barely managed to interpose her blades made of Qi, reminiscent of claws. There was a ringing clang, and hairline fractures snaked up the blue blades of energy.

Tigu was thrown from her feet from the force of the strike, barely managing to flip in the air to reorient.She barely managed to get her feet under her before Xianghua was on her again, driving her to the ground.

The modified pill furnace on her back was heavy, but it did not slow her down too much. The gauntlet on her arm whirred and hummed as the formation sucked in the steam. It was working, just like they had envisioned it.

========================

“It’s your brother, Xianghua.” Sei Fen said, turning to show her daughter the small swaddled bundle of pink skin.

Curious, her little one took the bundle, staring at the pink face.

“He is very ugly.” She opined, and Fen sighed at the blunt statement.

They’d have to fix that, at some point. Her daughter was a strange child. Far too blunt and literal. And disturbingly obedient.

Her husband saw no problem with it. He commanded, and she obeyed without question or hesitation, cultivating until told to stop. Which was once until she collapsed, because she hadn’t received the order to stop.

Liu Xiang chuckled as the girl held the small bundle.

“Xianghua, make sure to protect him.” The man declared pompously, so happy to have a male heir.

Xianghua stared at the bundle. A small pink face, eyes barely open. Tiny and fragile. He blinked, his eyes focusing on his sister. A little hand reached out from the swaddling, reaching for Xianghua’s face.

Interest flashed in the girl’s eye, her own hand came up instinctively to grasp the finger that reached out for her.

Her daughter’s lips quivered. Like she didn’t quite know what was happening. Slowly, a smile spread across her face. The first one that Fen had ever recalled seeing on her daughter.

“Understood.” She said, in that blunt way of hers. Fen smiled at the seriousness in her eyes.

It was rather cute. The two siblings were inseparable from that day forward.

==========================

Xianghua’s Blade, Shrouded Intent, snapped forward as if it was a Heron’s beak, spearing a fish out of the water before it had time to react. Her arm protested, as the blade struck down, again and again. Tigu managed to dodge, her movements tight and controlled even as she frantically rolled across the ground. For the first time in the tournament, little nicks and scratches marred her body.

Speed and Power.

That was the method of victory Liu Xianghua had decided upon. When faced with an absolute defense of floating blades, she had to be fast. Disrupt her opponent’s concentration. Force the normally aggressive Xiulan onto the back foot, and break through.

It was no movement technique, but hopefully it would be enough. It would have been good enough, probably, if Xiulan hadn't gone and surpassed her again.

Ah, such frustration.

But there was no sense dwelling on such things. While that strategy had originally been for the Blade of Grass, it was nearly universal in its application.

Rou Tigu was good. The short, stocky girl managed to regain her feet, even through the brutal strikes. Deflecting where she could, and dodging when she couldn’t. But she was off balance, and reeling from the sudden assault.

A gauntleted fist hammered into the girl’s stomach. Tigu folded over the brutal strike, coughing as spit flew out of her mouth. She was thrown across the arena, slamming into the ground.

Something inside Xianghua winced at the brutality behind the blow.

“Hmph. Is that all you have?” Xianghua demanded, even as she felt her skin start to burn. Her furnace hissed angrily, and Xianghua modified the amount of her Qi feeding the alchemical reaction within.

She kept her face impassive. She had pushed just a little too hard, but surely, she had dealt a blow that would be difficult to recover from.

===============================

She practiced within sight of his bed. She followed around the maids, whenever they took care of him. She marched around like a little Imperial Guard, always looking for threats to her diminutive charge.

And when he finally started to walk, and started to train, she was there with him, every step of the way. Liu Xiang praised his daughter’s devotion. She patched up his wounds. She stayed with him for hours, aiding his attempts at cultivation.

But there was something wrong. A shadow, over their little lives.

“Still not ready?” Xianghua asked her little brother bluntly, her head cocked to the side.

Bowu frowned, but wasn’t bothered by her question, as he stopped his frantic sword practise.

“Not... not yet. But! I’m sure to Ignite my Dantian any day now!” The boy said, his eyes determined.

Xianghua smiled at his determination. “You’re right, I’m sure things will be fine. The Spiritual Doctor will clear out the block, you’ll see. Everything will be fine tomorrow.”

The doctor came. Xianhua held Bowu’s hand throughout the entire proceeding, as the bearded man poked and prodded, before finally rising, and shaking his head.

The bottom dropped out from Xianghua’s stomach. Her father’s face twisted, as he rounded on her mother. Her mother’s eyes flashed, as she crossed her arms.

That night, the shouting started.

That night, everything went wrong.

==================================

Laughter.

The girl on the ground was laughing.

She pulled herself to her feet, and planted her hands on her hips. Her shirt had fallen open, exposing her stomach, and the slight mar on her skin from the blow.

And that was it.

A bead of sweat dripped down Xianghua’s forehead, as a massive tiger formed in the mist, its eyes burning with as much glee as its mistress.

Deadly. Domineering. Playful.

This is what I’ve been waiting for.” Rou Tigu declared, her cheeks splitting into a wide, happy smile, full of teeth. Her yellow eyes had turned to slits. Every muscle flexed, eliminating what little hints of feminine softness Tigu possessed, and leaving only cold, predatory power.

The sheer joy on her face after she was struck by a blow that would splatter a mortal across the entire hill was infuriating, the only evidence of the damage done was the slight hitch to her voice. Tigu seemed unbeatable.

But Xianghua stepped forward anyway. She threw herself back into the fray without reservation.

She never was very good at giving up.

============================

Her mother and father forbade her from seeing her brother. Her Bowu.

It did not make sense. She was supposed to protect him, was she not? She liked protecting him. He never looked at her strangely, like the maids sometimes did, and was always glad whenever she was there.

But he was gone now. Gone, and mother and father hated each other. They shouted and snarled, as Xianghua sat in the corner trying to tune out the words.

‘Cripple.’ ‘Broken meridians.’

Never be a cultivator

They blamed each other.

She searched high and low for him, but couldn’t find him in the sect. Until one day.

There was a great commotion in the sect. Xianghua wondered what it was. There were shouts, and there was screaming.

She pushed her way through the crowd, and came upon a scene. Her little brother, grabbing his leg, and sobbing.

Xianghua’s blade was out before she realised what she was doing, throwing herself at the one who dared to do this—

Her father’s sword blocked her own, and it was thrown from Xianghua’s grasp. He grabbed her arm and wrenched her away from the other disciple, who looked terrified.

“Bowu. As our deal stated earlier. You have lost. Now begone from my sight.”

Her brother was carried away, clutching at his leg.

Protect your Brother. She made to move forwards. She would strike down the little bastards who dared to—

Her father kept his hold on her wrist. His eyes were dispassionate.

“You need not concern yourself with the cripple. He takes up too much of your thoughts, when you should be focusing on cultivating.”

He turned, and pulled her away.

Something inside her snapped.

============================

The air rang with impacts.

One, ten, a hundred in the space of a second.

The Heron’s beak clashed with savage claws. They were even. The world narrowed to the gap between heartbeats.

A gauntleted fist caught Qi claws, and forced them up, Shadowed Intent drawing a shallow line across Qi hardened skin. Like a spirit beast’s flesh, it was tough beyond measure. In retaliation, a knee planted itself into Xianghua’s side, driving the air from her lungs and disrupting her breathing.

The steam flowing into her gauntlet destabilized, and she let it. She forced it to go further. With half a shriek, and half an explosion, her fist rocketed forwards again, hammering into Tigu’s face.

Both women were sent flying away from each other by one another.

Xianghua sank to her knees, greedily sucking in air. Tigu kicked out, spinning her legs and landing in a crouch, her knuckles on the ground, watching intently.

Waiting for Xianghua to get back up.

Xianghua huffed out a laugh, and decided not to test the strange girl’s patience. Her furnace spluttered, and she grimaced, rising to her feet again.

==================================

Bowu lay on his bed, clutching at his leg. The break was a bad one. It had damaged his knee, and even a week later, he could tell it was healing poorly.

“You are my blood. Be thankful for this.” His father had said, as he banished him here to the edges of the sect for being a worthless cripple, and for failing their bargain.

His mother’s eyes had ghosted over him, she’d said nothing like he wasn’t even worth the words.

Even his sister was—

“Bowu.”

He flailed, scrambling, looking for the interloper.

Xianghua was there. Her blank expression on her face. Or at least on half of her face. The other half was bruised, with her eye swollen shut.

“Xianghua—your face?!” He gasped, shocked to see her. She had not abandoned him too, had she?

She smiled at him with her little smile then pulled him into a hug.

“It’s fine. Father was just a bit rough today.” She whispered into his ear, hugging him tight. “Don’t worry. I’ll be here for you. I promised.”

Tears formed in Bowu’s eyes, as he held onto the only person who cared.

===============================

“She’s not gonna last.” Bowu muttered, staring down at the fight. He could see the rattle in the furnace. Its glow was bright and dangerously close to overloading. It was nearing its limits, and Xianghua seemed to notice it too. Her face was slick with sweat and blood.

But her opponent was slowing down too. Tigu was getting more cautious, even while the grin on her face was growing wider.

“Man, they’re really goin at it, eh?” Gou Ren muttered. Unlike the other bouts, where he had looked mildly concerned, now he just seemed amused.

The Image Master snorted. “Just like with Xiulan. I thought they were gonna kill each other the first time, but she was smilin’ then too.”

The women below clashed again.

Xianghua took a breath, and breathed out, a jet of steam erupting from her mouth, and forcing Tigu to dodge away.

Xianghua seized the opportunity. She reached back, pulling again on the furnace.

Every vent opened, spewing great gouts of steam, and shrouding the entire arena. He saw his sister wince as the burns she had received from the furnace on her back made themselves known.

The crowd howled and booed, as they could no longer see anything.

[Blazing Breath, Second From] He heard his sister’s voice Echo.

[Keelbreaker’s Bite]

“Prepare yourself!” He heard his sister shout.

=====================================

His sister met with him every day when she could. She made him his cane. She brought him the healing herbs that didn’t seem to do much.

When father was gone, she smuggled him into the library. They played on the lake. And she complained about her teachers.

“The etiquette teachers are being annoying. They keep saying their faces are meant to convey something, but I don’t get it.” She muttered, staring at the ceiling of his shack. “The only person I understand is you.”

Bowu frowned.

“I dunno. You could just keep doing it. They always say you should be domineering.” He muttered, taking a sip of his drink.

Her blank stare lingered on him for a moment, before she shifted. Her posture straightened, her head tilted up; like she was looking down on him.

“Oh, you dare approach this Young Mistress?” She demanded.

Bowu spat out his drink.

“Ha? You’re courting death?!” She shouted, one hand on her hip, and her finger pointed straight at him

Bowu howled with laughter, and missed the gleam in his sister’s eye.

He was in the crowd, the first time she said that to the visiting sect’s Young Master. They just nodded along, like her behavior was expected.

And for some reason, the man seemed to take less offense to the insults when she shouted them, instead of replying with her usual blank monotone.

Their lives diverged as they grew up. But she was always with him. She told him about the friend she had made, this Xiulan, and how the girl was far too boring for her own good.

He had even met the woman once. Xiulan. She was nice. A bit too obsessed with duty and honour, but she had chased off the bastards who popped up occasionally when Xianghua wasn’t there to drive them off.

But his sister always, always came back, with a new tale, or with a present, and a smile just for him.

=========================================

Neither of them could see. She heard Tigu start to sneeze, as Xianghua’s Qi invaded her nostrils.

Xinghua took off her furnace, quickly pulling on it, and resetting some of its functions, as well as pouring one of her waterskins that was under the furnace into the depleted chamber. Leaving the hissing contraption on the ground, she stepped away from it.

She could feel through the steam. The feather light touches that told her where her opponent was, stalking cautiously towards the hissing.

She kept her breathing shallow, to not give away her position. She couldn’t be completely sure the other girl’s senses would be fooled. Tigu had seen through her illusion the first time.

She could feel the smaller girl stalking forwards, heading towards the hissing furnace, and walking right by Xianghua. Perhaps it was cowardly to attack her from behind. But Tigu was far too great an opponent to not try to take every advantage she could.

With her Qi all around Tigu, her intent was masked completely. It was a silent whisper, aiming for a debilitating strike to the shoulder. With surprise and force, she would hopefully end the fight immediately.

Rou Tigu dodged.

Even Tigu seemed confused, as she moved exactly out of the way, dodging an attack with no qi signature from outside her line of sight.

Tigu blinked. “Mud Balls are truly profound.” She stated, sounding impressed.

Xianghua had no idea what the girl meant, as she pulled the steam around her, hazy outlines of steam swimming into focus and attacking.

Xianghua made a dash back to her furnace, grabbing it as Tigu followed in her wake, yelping as the ghostly figures mobbed her, burning her skin with superheated steam.

================================

Bowu was largely stuck between worlds. A cripple living at the outskirts of the sect. He did odd jobs, and worked with numbers when his employers allowed, while his sister fought in grand battles that she brought back stories of, or grabbed him scrolls that looked interesting from the library.

He had been looking through some ancestors’ notes on mist. Some kind of channeling array. It was old and out of use, but it was kind of interesting. He was fiddling with the pinwheel his sister had brought him back and leaning back in his seat when his water for tea came to a boil. In the cramped shack, when he leaned back, his hand was nearly over the firepit.

And the pinwheel was over the pot. He stared idly at it, as it spun, faster and faster, over the boiling pot.

He looked back to the channeling array.

He could not channel Qi himself. But the steam, and this channeling array…?

He looked at his leg, sighed, and put the thoughts away.

But not before drawing out a prototype.

=================================

The furnace had cooled down. Its vents were duller, and it would be able to start pumping out steam again.

Tigu snarled, as she chased down another shadow, rending it to pieces before sneezing again.

“Come on, Misty Lady! Stop hiding!” Tigu demanded, her voice echoing from off to the right.

Xianghua tapped at her gauntlet, opening it up and checking the formation inside it, when she felt Tigu suddenly crouch down.

There was a clatter, as she seemed to be taking off something and dropping it? What was she—?

[Pounce of the Tiger]

The air cracked and screamed, and there was a hole through her mist. Buffeting winds ripped and tore at her defense, as she tried desperately to keep the steam in place.

Then it happened again.

And again. Tigu rebounded throughout the arena, slamming into the ground and breaking it nearly half a dozen times.

The steam cleared, the divots in the ground formed from Tigu’s landing. The girl panted harshly as she turned, her eyes alighting on Xianghua.

“Found you!” She declared, her smile all sharp teeth.

Xianghua pulled on the starter on the furnace. It spluttered, and coughed, before starting again.

==============================

His sister was distraught. Her rival had bested her. Ascended past her. She even went so far as to say she had lost her way.

Whatever the case was, his sister was furious. She cultivated the best she could. She even went to father, demanding cultivation resources, and he allowed it. Some expensive reagent, imported from Howling Fang Mountains.

Bowu chewed his lip, and pulled out the old drawing she had made. His father could help. So maybe he could too? Maybe, if he tweaked the formation there—

Xianghua didn’t get it. She seemed a bit confused by the logistics and the math, but she sat down with her single minded focus, learning what he was doing so she could help.

She believed in his work.

And there was no way he would let her down.

===============================

Both of them were spent. Tigu was finally running out of energy. Her strikes were slower. Her claws had dipped in number, but there was a look of contentment on her face, as they battered away at each other.

Xianhua’s furnace hissed. It was the only thing that had kept her in the fight.

It was breaking down. It was cracking, as she poured everything she had left into it.

They both staggered back from each other’s strikes. They both fell to a knee.

Tigu Roared. Her claws multiplied again, as her shirt fell around her waist. Her muscles bulged, bright red, her eyes turned completely yellow.

Xianghua reached back, and pulled on the starter. Her furnace screamed, as it began to overload, fire tearing out from the smoke stack instead of steam.

The Heron's beak closed one last time, meeting a tiger’s claws.

===========================

His sister stared around her at the devastated training room. The shattered stone walls, and the steam boiled dummies.

She cradled the furnace like it was the most precious thing she had ever received.

“I’ll take it with me to the heavens.” She swore, and reached out her hand to him.

Bowu took it.

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A note from Casualfarmer

The tale of the most extra of big sisters.

 

In the Anime that fight scene lasts for 12 episodes with all these flashbacks :P

 

And As always, if you wish to read the next TWO chapters, I do have an advanced chapter on patreon


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