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Another day, another short fight. Xiulan was starting to understand where Tigu was coming from. It was unbearably boring just sitting in her seat with nobody to talk to. She had given leave to the Petals to sit in the crowd with the Xong Brothers and watch the tournament from there.

The rest of them were up in the stand. Gou Ren and Yun Ren were in their usual seats, along with Bowu, and a strange looking man with a bunch of patches on his clothes. Gou Ren’s look of panic when An Ran had sat beside him, on the opposite side of Xianghua had been rather amusing. As had Ri Zu’s flight. Xiulan caught the small black streak as she transferred from Gou Ren to Yun Ren, fleeing from the line of fire.

An Ran had found her courage, it seemed.

Gou Ren was sandwiched between two flowers who were glaring at each other, though Xianghua seemed more amused than annoyed. Xiulan had given him a thumbs up when she felt his eyes, begging for aid.

She left him to his fate.

The most exciting match of all had been when Loud Boy had taken to the field against Tie Delun. The scrappy young man held out admirably, managing to strike Delun’s massive hammer so hard it broke, shattering into a thousand pieces.

Xiulan thought that was the end of Loud Boy’s defiance, but he dug deep, stomping forwards.

A second strike hammered home, managing to barely break through the Hermetic Iron Body. An ethereal dragon’s tail writhed around Loud Boy as he sought to end the fight in a sudden reversal, like he had so often before.

Delun staggered back. His skin was cracked and his eyes went wide as he received the devastating strike. For a moment, he faltered.

Until Tigu started cheering. Delun’s eyes had sparked and fire had steamed out of his mouth like an active forge, his cracked skin hardening once more. He dug in his feet and managed to force his way through the devastating dragon’s tail, landing a powerful uppercut and taking Loud Boy out of the fight with a broken jaw.

Loud Boy’s face twisted as he was on the ground, his eyes narrowing with something ugly— Until Delun offered him a hand, nodding at his accomplishments.

The crowd echoed this sentiment, shouting the name Loud Boy as he departed.

Loud Boy had seemed very surprised, and contemplative, as he left the arena.

And then there were four.

Cai Xiulan of the Verdant Blade Sect. Guo Daxian of the Grand Ravine Sect. Tie Delun of the Hermetic Iron Sect. And the independent Rou Tigu.

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

The day of the semifinals was charged.

The thunderous beat of the drums and the howling of the crowds was deafening.

They once more entered to pomp and ceremony. A play on the same opening ceremony, where the contestants had entered and lined up in the hundreds.

Now, they had been greatly reduced. There were no disciples beside them. Each entered alone. Xiulan, with the banner of the Verdant Blade Sect. Guo Daxian, with the Grand Ravine’s. Tie Delun, to the ringing of iron.

And the last. Rou Tigu, carrying the flag of the sectless. She seemed a bit amused to be carrying it and as she placed it below the Phoenix banner she flipped her hair, exposing the symbol on the back of her shirt. While the others had their sects, and the people who were invested in their cause, Tigu had the majority of the crowd.

Loud Boy led the call, his jaw healed by Ri Zu. They were ill-organised but full of spirit as they shouted her name. Even if she wasn’t truly the underdog she was a manifestation of their spirit. A girl who came out of nowhere, without the backing of one of the established powers.

The first match was hers. Her opponent, Tie Delun.

He shuffled uncomfortably.

“I’m looking forward to this, Handsome Man!” Tigu shouted. “Come, show me all your strength!”

Tie Delun gritted his teeth, took a deep breath, and steeled himself.

Tanned skin turned to grey, like iron.

His skin was inviolate, even against Tigu’s mighty blows. Her claws scraped off him without finding purchase.

But Tigu had trained with Xiulan, and against Bi De. Tie Delun’s hammer, a new one, was fast… but not fast enough, as his smaller opponent danced circles around him.

He even once left himself open, purposefully taking a blow in order to land a devastating hammer strike on the smaller girl. The strike shook the entire arena. An explosion of dust rose up as Tigu was driven into the ground with all of his considerable might.

Tie Delun staggered back, panting. He looked worried that he had done Tigu harm. Such a strike likely would have killed another contestant.

The small, orange haired girl staggered to her feet. Some of her ribs were obviously broken.

She smiled her brilliant smile.

“A fine blow!” she praised him, while kicking off her sandals. “My turn.”

She crouched down, digging her toes into the solid stone of the arena.

[Pounce of the Tiger]

A meteor struck Tie Delun, moving too fast for his eyes to catch.

His iron skin broke.

The fight ended with Tigu sitting atop his chest like a cat, smiling down at him.

The crowd roared her victory as she helped her opponent up. The master of the Resounding Crystal podium was yelling himself hoarse.

And then it was Xiulan’s turn. Guo Daxian, the Young Master of the Grand Ravine Sect. A man who had laid her low once before.

The cheers were deafening, but inconsequential.

Daxian, in contrast to Delun, was calm. His eyes were focused as he took Xiulan in.

“Thank you for your consideration for my junior, earlier.” Xiulan whispered.

The man’s voice was deadly calm. “I would be a fool not to return your favour, woman. But now, are you going to disrespect me as well? Strike me with that open hand of yours?”

Xiulan considered him. He was a prideful man. One who would take her being kind to him as an offense. One who would bear a grudge for not seeing her might.

He was a bit like Tigu in that way.

“No, I will not. Out of consideration for the Young Master of the Grand Ravine Sect’s talent.”

Daxian nodded.

“Show me.” He commanded. “Show me the power of a cultivator in the Profound Realm.”

The gong sounded.

Xiulan obliged him.

And for the first time, let lose her power.

[Verdant Blade Sword Arts: Thirty-Two Blades of Grass]

The roaring crowds went silent. A halo of jade green swords surrounded Xiulan, pointing upwards like grass growing towards the \Heavens.

Slowly, they shifted. They orbited her in the first steps of her dance, a green procession of Qi infused metal.

Until they all froze and shifted. Each and every blade turned like a living thing and pointed directly at her opponent.

Guo Daxian unlimbered his weapon.

He faced the storm with a straight back.

For the first time against her, he was the one who did not hold the initiative.

He was a testament to his line. A charge that was heroic, almost noble. A dive straight into the jaws of death.

There was no denying his skill. There was no denying his ability. He deflected and parried her blades. He chained his movement technique so often he was a blur across the arena.

And yet… he could not get closer. Xiulan had long since realised the reason why Tigu was so successful. She was in the end, a spirit beast, and they were naturally more durable, tougher, than men. Blades that Tigu would deflect with her body instead cut deep lines into Daxian.

Xiulan’s assault was overwhelming.

She did not move a single step.

With a roar, Daxian's tattoos glowed blue. He called upon the strength and protection of his ancestors, doubling his speed and shielding him from her blade’s bite.

Xiulan stepped to the side as her opponent's weapon reached out desperately to score a hit. A few strands of her brown hair fell from her head.

Daxian shot past her, straight into the trap of blades Xiulan had created.

He looked almost resigned as the jade swords descended. But he still turned, intent on launching one last attack.

There was a thud as he was driven to the floor. Looking for all the world like there were blades of grass growing from his body.

The crowd was silent. Their eyes were wide as they stared at Xiulan. Even Xianghua had ceased her games, staring at Xiulan with wide eyes.

Her blades disappeared, combining together until only two were left.

Xiulan bowed to her defeated opponent.

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

The Tournament Organiser, Bai Huizong, looked very pleased as he stared down at them all, a bright smile on his face after the Earthly Arena was raised. It would rise one more time, when the victor was declared. They alone would stand upon the peak.

Xiulan and Tigu stood across from each other. Ten paces behind them stood their opponents and the rest of the defeated.

Both Delun and Daxian looked dead on their feet, covered in bandages, but still standing as tall as they could.

“What a lineup! What a magnificent set of contestants, do you not agree?!” The man boomed into the Resounding Crystal Dias. The crowd roared their approval.

“The strength! The passion! I have no doubt this Dueling Peaks Tournament is one for the ages! One that will resound throughout our Azure Hills! Even the defeated are of a quality that we rarely see! In any other year, I can think of many who would rise to be champions themselves!”

More roars, as the people shouted names, Xianghua and Loud Boy prominent among them.

“Now, we commence another break, so that the contestants may fight at their full strength during the coming final bout! But do not fear for lack of entertainment! We have the Amateur Pill Maker Contest in the Stone Pavilion, an event that's sure to be… explosive!”

There was some laughter at that. There was a reason that one was held in a fortress of stone, with nothing flammable near the contestants.

“For the Mortals that wish to catch a sect’s eye with your skill and strength, the Mortal’s Contest shall be held in the lesser arena on the south side. It's sure to be an interesting set of bouts! And finally, we have the lesser events. A performance every day from the legendary Skytree Troupe! The Hero of the Ravine, The Demon Slaying Orchid, the Song of the Framed Sun, The First Emperor, and of course, the always entertaining Ballad of the Drunkard! Standing is free, courtesy of our Tournament!”

Bai Huizong basked in the adulation of the crowd, raising his hands high.

“Contestants! You are all dismissed for today. Remember to return, bright and early for the final ceremony, and don’t get too wild.” He finished with a chuckle.

Done for the day and a week-long break to look forward to. Normally, she would have spent the time cultivating, but…

She glanced at the crowd as the majority filed out.

Xianghua caught her eye, waving her hands and making a drinking motion, and Xiulan rolled her eyes then nodded.

Yes, she remembered the party that night. Yes, she would be going. Xianghua really didn’t need to keep annoying her about it—She wasn’t going to change her mind. The last couple of times had been fun.

She idly wondered who would be there today.

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

“Haha! Behold, the benevolence of this Young Mistress!” Xianghua roared, her voice echoing across the street as she stood with Chen Yang of the Framed Sun Sect, the man grinning at all the eyes on the two of them. They were on a small, raised platform in the street’s square, addressing the crowd. Streamers of cloth and paper lanterns lit up the area, somewhere musicians plied their trade, and this street in particular was jam packed with bodies, raising their cups to the two figures standing on an impromptu stage.

There was a roar of approval, some laughter, and some jeers at Xianghua’s words.

As it turned out, everybody showed up. Or nearly everybody. The Grand Ravine Sect was nowhere to be seen, but it seemed like every other person who had participated in the tournament was in attendance.

Xiulan, quite frankly, had no idea how Xianghua managed it. Although the promise of free drinks on her was likely the deciding factor for many who were present. There were many here who could be classified as the Misty Lake Sect’s enemies, like the Azure Horizon Sect. Yet there the Young Master of the sect was, raising his cup.

Xiulan supposed that even being Xianghua’s enemy didn’t stop him from taking advantage of her generosity.

Or the Young Master just didn’t particularly care.

Most didn’t seem to care. There were some groups that formed, sticking together, but for the large part, they mingled. Oh, how a party changed things. Or at least this party had. Perhaps it was the youthfulness of the attendees, but Xiulan had once imagined these kinds of parties to be... tenser affairs. That she would have to watch herself more closely. That there would be veiled words and pointed questions. That, in addition to the questing eyes, had her writing the whole affair off. To her, parties had just seemed a waste of time.

Instead, there was little propriety. The vaunted Young Masters and Mistresses… were acting like mortals.

It was an amusing thought.

Xiulan hummed to herself and tapped her feet to the music as she wandered around the venue. Some made room for her. A few she absently dodged as they gesticulated wildly.

Somewhat surprisingly, very few eyes were directed her way, as most seemed to be looking at the wall Yun Ren had commandeered watching his highlights of the fights.

There was even a small corner, off to the side, where several people were setting up a mahjong table. Xiulan turned to where the person who invited her to the entire affair was.

Xianghua was still belting out how she was an untouchable, generous goddess, and might be at it for a while.

Xiulan took a moment to consider whether it was worth going anywhere near Xianghua, then she turned back to the table setting up for the mahjong game. They noticed her approach.

“Ah… Miss Cai, do you wish to join us?” one of them tentatively asked, gesturing to the mahjong table.

“If you’ll have me.” She replied.

Their game began. The rest of the players were intensely nervous, shooting her glances, but slowly, they seemed to calm down as the game progressed.

Her opponents were quite skilled. Much better than Master Jin, but she could never tell whether he was actually bad at the games they played or he just didn’t care about winning them.

And her new opponents were actually rather pleasant. They snuck their glances, but seemed content to merely discuss the game and didn’t ask any awkward questions.

The eventual winner was the largest of them, a thickset and slightly thuggish looking Qiao Dan, who was the son of an official from Grass Sea City. He had chewed his lip for a full minute after Xiulan played her hand before playing his.

“Nine Gates of Heaven.” He intoned as he revealed a play that bested her own. He seemed a bit nervous.

Xiulan inclined her head. “A fine game. Another?” She asked.

The men looked around at the table. They shrugged and started again.

“Ah! There you are, Cai. Huddled off and playing over here!” Xianghua asked in the middle of their game, leaning on Xiulan’s shoulder, and with no regard for what Xiulan was doing, started to rearrange her tiles.

Xiulan slapped her hand away and put them back how she had them.

“Begone, Damp Pond.” She stated, irritated, but took the cup of wine that was shoved into her hand.

Xianghua scoffed. “You’re terrible at this, Xiulan. Really, I’m doing you a favour.”

“Haa? Get over to that side then and see if you win.” Xiulan demanded, glaring at Xianghua. Her other opponents were watching meekly as the two argued.

Xiulan dealt her into the next game.

It turned out to be a mistake.

“All Green Imperial Jade.” Xianghua announced smugly.

Xiulan tossed her tiles aside in disgust as Xianghua got up, laughing all the while.

Xiulan reshuffled the tiles and found herself challenging a fresh set of people. Inevitably Gou Ren and Tigu got involved.

Gou Ren proved a challenging opponent, coming along with Tigu.

“Here! The Great Pillars of Fa Ram!” Tigu exclaimed.

Gou Ren stared blankly at her.

That isn’t even a hand, Tigu.”

“But it is the best looking of the arrangements!” She argued.

“You don’t get any points for how pretty it is!”

“The largest picture then?”

“No! You’re as bad as Jin at this!”

Xiulan hopped from table to table, game to game. Occasionally playing with somebody she knew, but most of the time with people she didn’t.

She even indulged in the game of dice she saw the soldiers start up.

And swiftly realised why they were so addicted to it.

...she probably lost more money than she should have, but she had gotten most of it back. Then there was a small commotion near the edges of the party as the Grand Ravine Sect arrived.

It spoiled her throw. Instead of the dice landing properly, they turned to damnation.

The man running the game smiled beautifically as Xiulan cursed, turning to the tardy arrivals.

“Hmph. So these bastards can throw a party.” She heard a loud voice call. Some of the talk went quiet. Guo Daxian and the Grand Ravine Sect members stood, their arms folded across their chests.

Xiulan rolled her eyes.

Guo Daxian made a great show of looking around, wincing slightly around his bandages.

“I think we should—”

“Ah! Blue Man! I have been meaning to speak with you!” Tigu called out, accidentally interrupting him. She marched straight up to Guo Daxian. The Disciples of the Grand Ravine Sect seemed taken aback by the sudden accosting.

The Young Master of the Grand Ravine Sect eyes narrowed as Tigu approached him. The smaller girl stood before the hard man. His hair was covered by his bandana and his bright tattoos stood out on his arms.

“What is this art upon your skin? I like it!”

Guo Daxian looked directly at Tigu, an eyebrow raised.

“Aren’t you the brat who carved my face into a table?” He drawled.

“Yes! Your tattoo was hard to get right! I had to look at Yun Ren’s recording’s many times to capture the intricate detail!” Tigu replied. “To cover your body in art! I think I like it! Though too much might ruin the aesthetic of one’s muscles…”

Gua Daxian paused, his face still locked in his frown, but seemingly a bit confused. “Yun Ren? Recording?” He asked and Tigu pointed.

Yun Ren perked up when he saw her pointing, wandering over.

“What’s going on?” He asked, putting a hand on Tigu’s shoulder and leaning towards Guo Daxian in a manner that suggested he was backing Tigu up.

Daxian glanced at Yun Ren, and his eyes became thoughtful as they landed on his scarf.

He stared intently at Yun Ren’s manner of dress. Now that Xiulan was looking at it more, the tattoos on Guo Daxian’s arms were quite similar to the design on Yun Ren’s scarf. He glanced over to Tigu and then back to Yun Ren.

“Which tribe do you hail from?” He asked, his eyes narrow.

“From up north aways, yanno?” Yun Ren replied, putting on a thick accent that Xiulan had heard his mother use, and dodging the question.

Daxian barked out a laugh before replying with an odd accent of his own. “That be fair enough.” He nodded his head, apparently approving.

He looked over at the rough looking girl, considering her… before dropping his arm and pulling at his shirt, better allowing Tigu to see the ink upon his skin.

“It is the legacy of our ancestors. Only the mighty may bear these marks, after the great warriors of old.”

Tigu’s eyes sparkled as she looked at the ink.

“A needle, imbued with my father’s Qi. Ink, infused with my own blood. The process is painful. Only the greatest of warriors can withstand it, and a true man must receive his ancestor’s blessings without making a sound.”

Tigu made an impressed noise.

“I bet I could do it.” She said, her gaze challenging.

“Feisty little brat, you are.” Guo Daxian muttered, before shaking his head and gesturing to one of his comrades. “Oi, Little Brother, what manner of style do you think would work on this one here?”

One of the Disciples of the Grand Ravine Sect looked closely at her.

“Perhaps Ancestor Daxian the Ninth?”

The conversation continued as the notoriously stand-offish Grand Ravine Sect claimed a table, and started talking to the wild looking girl, who listened intently.

Another cup of wine was shoved into Xiulan’s hand as Xianghua found her again.

“Drinking contest is starting!” She shouted into Xiulan’s face, and started dragging her off.

It was a whirlwind. A sometimes chaotic, confusing mess, as Xiulan slammed back the drinks that were put in front of her.

She didn’t realise she had won until Chen Yang held out both arms, presenting her to the crowd, Xianghua doubled over and looking like she was about to—

Xiulan grimaced and patted her back as…. liquid splattered to the ground.

Xiulan staggered to her feet, pleasantly buzzed, and brought her friend to Gou Ren’s care. He was sharing drinks with her Petals.

Rather, Xiulan just dumped the woman in his lap. She had cleaned up Xianghua’s face, it was fine.

She wandered around again, the lights were very floaty and pleasant.

Stalls had popped up around the outskirts. People selling food and drink, with the bold even wading into the gathering of cultivators. Xiulan, with a craving for something greasy, wandered over to one that smelled absolutely heavenly, picking up a large order of… meat? Something that was rotating on a spit. It smelled heavenly, whatever it was.

She wandered back to the table she left Gou Ren and the Petals at, her arms laden with food.

Tigu was shouting excitedly. Yun Ren had his hand on her arm as a blue tattoo scrawled across her shoulder. Several people looked on with amusement as what looked like a mustache formed on her face swiftly afterwards. She handed them both some of her prizes, before continuing back towards the table.

She bumped into a very drunk man and they both staggered slightly.

He squinted at her, through his bleary eyes and red face.

“Marry me, oh otherworldly and beautiful fairy.” He asked dreamily.

Xiulan stared at him.

“Terribly sorry, Miss Cai!” one of the men with him said, pulling at the drunk man’s arm.

“Yes, Miss Cai, we’ll get him out of your way!”

His friends grabbed the drunk’s shoulders and pulled him out of her path.

Such nice fellows.

Xiulan returned to her seat and began distributing the food.

An Ran, her face flushed bright red and her eyes hazy from drink, stared at her.

“Marry me, oh otherworldly and beautiful fairy.” She slurred.

Xiulan stared at her and shoved a bite of food in her mouth. Disappointed by the response, An Ran turned to Gou Ren next.

“Marry me, handsome brother.” she asked. Gou Ren grimaced at her sour breath even as his face flushed.

“She’s been like this for a while.” Huyi muttered, shoving a glass of water in An Ran’s hand.

An Ran blinked and turned to him.

“Marry me, handsome fish.” She slurred. Huyi’s dead-fish looking eyes twitched.

An Ran turned to Li and repeated the question.

Then, Xianghua, who burst out laughing.

Xi Bu, the only one of them who hadn’t drank anything, sighed heavily as he picked An Ran up.

“Marry me, cute little one.” An Ran muttered, as Xi Bu started walking in the direction of their sect’s manor.

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

The moon was very high in the sky as the world trailed mostly back into focus. A large space had been cleared in the square, free of obstructions. The outskirts were full of clapping revelers, while inside, people danced with abandon. Most looked quite drunk. Xiulan stomped her foot and clapped her hands in time with the music.

She saw Tie Delun boldly approach Tigu, who was on the other side of the circle, still with Yun Ren. His face was red as he whispered something in her ear.

Tigu grinned and grabbed the large man’s arm.

Xiulan laughed as Tigu jumped into the circle, dragging Tie Delun along with her. The man looked panicked as she started to move, bouncing around with abandon.

Some people pointed and jeered, but most seemed content to watch or chat

The song petered out and an older gentleman took the stage. Wrinkled and toothless, with only a pipa to his name. He grinned through his gums and started to play.

An old song. Old, familiar---nostalgic. It stirred something deep in Xiulan’s soul hearing it.

Tigu’s dance changed, looking like she was copying Bi De’s dance. The one that Senior Sister said was from her village.

Tie Delun danced with Tigu. Awkwardly at first, for it was clear they had been taught two different movements to the same song. While Tigu’s movements were sharper, more like a flickering flame… Delun’s was slower. More solid. Half-way between earth and metal.

Xiulan watched the dance fondly, but there was something itching in the back of her mind.

It was rough. It was imperfect. But there was something…. Magnetic about it.

Something that drew her in.

Xiulan’s feet moved of their own accord. Moving to a dance she knew.

Moving to the dance that the earth spirit taught her.

Wood joined the movements. Slower that fire, but more vigorous than stone. A dance she knew by heart. She slotted into the movements perfectly. Like it was made for three.

No, it was made for five.

Xiulan’s focus was on the three of them.

Water. The movements were halting. Xianghua was staggering a bit as she danced. It was something Xiulan had seen before, in the villages around the Grass Sea. Smooth and flowing.

Flowing like water.

Each step was different, yet in perfect synchrony. Occasionally, their movements would intersect.

The music faded out until the only thing that was left was the beat.

The world compressed as Xianghua’s movements became more sure. Tigu’s eyes went blank. Tie Delun’s movements smoothed out.

Fire. Earth. Water. Wood.

They moved together in a circle.

Some of the movements were wrong. Some of them were not what they should be. And they were completely missing metal—

The pounding reached a climax. Their movements synchronised.

There was something there.

Their feet slammed into the ground as one.

The song ended.

The spell broke.

All of them were breathing hard when the world swam back into focus.

A spark, a brief connection.

And then it was gone, but Xiulan herself still felt energized. The old man was just getting started. His fingers began to pluck out a new tune.

Her feet continued their tapping. Her arms moved as she started to flow through the movements.

People joined the circle. People left it.

Xiulan danced until the sun came up, breaking through the sky, and appearing framed in between the peaks.

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A note from Casualfarmer

And the Last chapter before my small break. 26th is off, as I said!

 

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


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