She awoke to a dull roar. It was like a physical weight. She could feel the rumble deep in her chest from the sheer power of it all. An all-consuming buzz of a hundred thousand voices, screaming and hollering. Stamping feet, thunderous applause. The Members of the Hermetic Iron Sect Striking their hammers against anvils. The howls of the Grand Ravine, and the barge-poles of the Misty Lake.
“What a battle! What an extraordinary battle! I swear upon my honour, that this bout will be spoken of for the next thousand years!”
The announcer was beside himself. His voice was hoarse as he shouted into his artifact. His aides were hollering and hooting, forgetting all decorum as they too joined in the roar of the crowd.
She could feel the grit on her face, from where her cheek lay. The sun was beating down onto her back.
“In all my years! In every tournament I have ever witnessed! Never have I seen such a bout!”
She got one of her arms underneath her, and tried to push herself up. She failed. Groaning, she rolled over onto her back wincing at the aggravation to her injuries.
She opened her bleary eyes.
The first thing she saw was her furnace. Its ports were dull. There was a crack from its impact into the ground, and its ripped straps hung loose.
Xianghua raised a shaking hand, and brought the back of it across her eyes, shielding them from the sun.
“All hail the victor! All hail Rou Tigu! The Tiger in the Grass, who has pounced into the tournament. Conqueror of the Mists!”
Xianghua bit her lip, as her shoulders shook from bottled emotion.
She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. First Xiulan, and her miraculous ascension, and now this one. In any other year, in any other time… She could have won.
The heavens were a fickle mistress. They spat upon her and her brother’s efforts.
She glanced out of the corner of her eye at her opponent. Tigu’s shirt was around her waist, with only her chest wraps preserving her modesty. She had bruises all over her stomach, burns across her shoulders, and Xianghua could hear a little hitch in her breath.
Tigu’s eyes were closed, and her face was directed at the sun, a look of absolute peace on her face.
She pulled her shirt back up around her shoulders. Yellow eyes locked onto Xianghua’s blue.
Her hands raised in the gesture of respect, her head bowing the lowest acceptable to any who were not her master.
“Thank you,” Rou Tigu intoned. Her head came up, eyes still closed, a grateful smile beaming at Xianghua.
There was absolutely no mistaking that look on her face other than one of praise and admiration. Even Xianghua could tell that she wasn’t patronizing her.
“Xianghua! Xianghua!” she heard her brother’s panicked voice calling her name. He was at the edges of the arena, both hands braced on the stone divider. Idly, she wondered how he managed to get down there so fast, until she noticed Gou Ren, his hand on her brother’s shoulder, brows furrowed in concern.
She held up a hand weakly waving at him, she saw her brother sigh with relief.
She catalogued the injuries she could feel. There were some burns, and likely broken bones, but Xianghua felt fine. Well, she would hesitate to say fine. She felt like she had been run over by a Wreckerball. Tigu had been remarkably restrained. Xianghua didn't know if it was insulting or not that Tigu sheathed her Qi blades at the last moment.
Xianghua breathed deep and centered herself. It was time to get up. She pushed herself up, wincing at the pain. Her legs were shaking. Her eyes were still a bit blurry, but she managed to stagger to her feet.
The wall of noise redoubled in its intensity.
“And still she can stand! Such resilience! Such fortitude! My friends, can you believe this? The Mist over the Lake is Eternal!”
Xianghua turned to face her brother, who had collapsed backwards onto Gou Ren, the man holding him up without complaint. He nodded firmly to Xianghua.
The small feeling in her gut when she looked at him intensified. She turned away, to bow to her opponent, as tradition dictated, Tigu was already moving.
Tigu darted around the arena, bending down to pick up—parts of Xianghua’s furnace? She took them up with obvious care, and placed them in a cloth she had pulled from her shirt, packing everything together.
“This is an amazing artifact!” Tigu called out, as she reached the furnace. Her eyes were bright with interest, as she walked around it twice, before gently picking it up too, bringing it over to Xianghua. “Make sure it gets fixed for our next bout!”
Xianghua stared at Tigu. She didn’t exactly know how to react to such aggressive… cheerfulness. It wasn’t even contentment with victory, but from the fight itself.
“I like you!” Tigu declared bluntly. “Fight with me again, okay?”
Such a strange girl.
Almost absently, she nodded her head. The offer of a powerful sparring partner was not something to turn down lightly. The fight had been a good stress test for the furnace. She had discovered a hundred different tweaks to improve it that she needed to tell Bowu about.
Xianghua took a breath, and straightened herself out. She bowed to Tigu.
“I thank you for the match, Rou Tigu. I have learned much from it.”
“Have dinner with me tonight!” the girl demanded.
Xianghua chuckled. Really, who was so friendly after such a bout?
Until she coughed.
“Though I’m afraid you shall have to wait at least a week,” Xianghua muttered once the coughing fit passed. “The only thing in my future right now is rest. Tell your handsome brother to visit this fair maiden, won’t you?”
Tigu frowned. She cocked her head to the side, before reaching into her pocket, and pulling out a small packet.
“A week is too long,” she decreed, petulantly. “Take this, it will speed your recovery.”
“Oh, you dare insult me by giving me medicine?” She asked, but really, her heart wasn’t in it. Xianghua could feel the Qi pulsing outwards despite the wrappings. Just what was this child giving her?
“Yes. Become angry with me, get stronger, and challenge me again!” Tigu demanded, as she pressed the packet of herbs into Xianghua’s hand. “But do not get too angry to eat with us later!”
Xianghua shook her head in exasperation, before once more taking the haughty stance of a Young Mistress.
“Ha! You may have beaten me this day, but I’ll return. Watch yourself, Tigu!” she declared, snatching the medicine from Rou Tigu’s hand. “You’ll regret giving me more power, now.”
She got a bright smile in return.
Xianghua picked up her furnace and it’s broken parts, and began to limp out of the arena. She paused, the chanting from the arena finally registering.
“Xianghua! Xianghua! Xianghua!” the crowd roared.
They were chanting her name.
Xinaghua, Young Mistress of the Misty Lake, looked up into the crowd as the men and women from the Misty Lake slammed their poles into the ground, their eyes full of proud tears.
“A peerless competitor! The wielder of a powerful, heavens shaking artifact! Liu Xainghua! We, His Imperial Majesty’s Tournament Commision, Salute your might!”
She managed to get out of the arena, before she had to lean against the wall.
A loss. A frustrating loss. But there was a smile on her face.
A heavens shaking artifact, hm?
They were absolutely correct.
Xianghua stared at the ceiling from the bed, the afternoon sun filtering through her windows casting the world in gold. Lifting the platform in the Earthly Arena had been a difficult task, but at least she had help. It was not too often that she worked together with so many others, lifting the enormous platform higher.
A loss. Another loss, and even earlier than the last time. Though the last time she hadn’t been as injured, instead, she spent the rest of the tournament trying to goad Xiulan into sneaking out and enjoying the festival with her, instead of just cultivating.
She rolled the small ball of medicine Tigu had given her between her fingers. It was potent, absolutely filled to bursting with Qi. A treasure that an elder would hoard.
And she had been given it without a second thought.
She idly wondered if it would help with her brother's leg, but the injury was years old by now. Even a lot of Qi wouldn’t cure that. Or even most doctors.
She had paid a lot of money over the years, and each time they returned, shaking their heads.
The world lapsed into silence again.
There were footsteps outside her door. “Leave us,” a familiar voice commanded, and there were several whispers of acceptance. Xianghua slid the medicine under the covers.
The door to her room opened, and her father strode in. His blue robes immaculate, hard eyes locking onto her as he stepped through the doorway.
There was silence, as he took in her condition.
“You lost,” her father said.
“I did.” She said not bothering to sit up, shrugging.
The man stared at her. Something crossed over his face. She had no real idea what was on his face. She never took the time to learn his expressions. It wasn’t worth the time.
She wondered when he would leave.
“Strength, however, forgives all. And we are… Pleased with your performance.”
The words were said haltingly, as he loomed over the bed. His hand extended, and she glared at him, as the offending appendage grabbed onto her shoulder hard enough to hurt.
It lasted a brief moment, before he pulled away.
The man turned, glancing at the furnace. He considered it. He opened his mouth to say something. But in the end, he didn’t.
“I will not be seeing you for quite some time. I have things to attend to out of the province. In my absence, Elder Bingwen shall be in charge.” He said it matter of factly.
Xianghua was confused. He was leaving? Why? What could be so important? But the man did not elaborate.
“Take care of the sect.” He clenched his fists. He stared at her, with a piercing gaze before turning on his heels to leave.
He opened the door and paused at another two people just outside it. Elder Bingwen stood with a smile waiting outside the door. Elder Bingwen, who had his hand on Bowu’s shoulder. Bowu seemed a bit confused, but shrank back from their father, glancing at the ground. Her father’s face was stone. He glanced at Bowu once, before continuing to walk away.
“Go on, Young Master,” the Elder said, as he released her brother’s shoulder.
Bowu hobbled forwards as fast as his legs could carry him.
Xianghua rose up and opened her arms, as he clambered onto her bed, but her eyes were locked on the Elder. He walked into her room, a gleam in his eyes.
“A fine show today, Young Mistress, a fine show,” the old man said, stroking his beard. “But now is not the time to speak on it. Please rest until your wounds are healed, and then enjoy yourself for the rest of the tournament.”
He was… happy? Inordinately happy from what she could tell.
He stared at the furnace, and his face broke into a wide smile.
“We look forward to both your future growth.” He glanced for a moment at the pair before departing.
Xianghua frowned after him.
“What happened?” She asked her brother.
He shrugged. “The Elders all came, and said that I needed a bigger room,” he whispered back. “They were all… Well, they were a bit weird, and polite. They said… they said there was going to be a lot of changes. And that I could come into the main compound whenever I wanted.”
Xianghua pondered the new development.
“Are… Are you alright? Gou Ren and the Image Master said that Tigu doesn’t hurt people too bad but…” He trailed off, wincing at her wounds.
She smiled at his concern.
“They are right. I’m mostly just tired, and out of Qi,” she confirmed. “A few breaks, but nothing too concerning. I could even get up right now if I wanted!”
Her brother chewed his lips, as he stared at her. He eventually nodded.
“Then… do you want to go and get dinner together?” he asked shyly. “Gou Ren said they were going to have a bit of a party…”
To be able to openly have food with her brother…
Well, that was no choice at all, was it?
But he had called her bluff.
“Just give me a moment to take my medicine,” she said. “I need some strength.”
She reached back into her hiding place, and retrieved the pill. She considered it for a second again, but at the hopeful look on her brother’s face, she bit down on it.
It would probably still take a bit for it to activate, but perhaps they would be able to catch the tail end—
Her eyes widened, as the Qi within surged.
The Dumpling house was awash with noise. Loud Boy was covered in bruises, but still triumphant as he raised a cup with Rags and the rest of Rags friends.
Fish Eyes and The Smaller Blade of Grass were both slumped over, sighing at the thought of their next matches. The Smaller Blade of Grass was against the Rope man from the ravine, and Fish Eyes had the misfortune to be against the Handsome Man.
Both were complaining, though Huyi more than An Ran, who was again seated beside Gou Ren.
Tigu was content, as she stared around. She felt relaxed, she would sleep very well tonight.
“Oh? You dare start without me?!” a voice boomed. Tigu perked up.
Xianghua unceremoniously shoved a chair in between An Ran and Gou Ren, knocking the other girl aside, and sitting down beside him. The Smaller Blade of Grass’s eyes were wide in shock, as Xianghua leaned on Gou Ren smiling brightly at him.
Gou Ren froze, as Xianghua leaned in. Two fingers walked their way up his chest. The small boy with the crutches was sitting beside Yun Ren, both with intense looks of interest on their face.
“But I suppose I can find it in me to forgive you,” she said, before glancing out the corner of her eye at Xiulan and smirking.
Tigu saw the Blade Of Grass’s eye twitch at the blatant invasion.