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I’d have to admit to having a bit of a spring in my step as I set off in the direction that Master Jing of the Crystal Emporium had laid out for me. We moved at a decent clip without the cart, eating the distance once more.

 

I just… felt good.

 

Relaxed, I suppose.

 

I hadn’t had to fight anyone, and while the fact that the Cloudy Sword Sect still had business with me was a bit bothersome Senior Brother Lu Ri seemed content to let things lie.

 

There were no threats. There was no face-slapping or grudges to last a thousand years. Just a dude delivering mail.

 

There was the revelation that the old drunkard was somebody important, but I’d cross that bridge when I got to it.

 

The hills and forests of Pale Moon Lake transitioned to the Grass Sea. Oh there were still plenty of hills, but they were flatter and smoother, more rolling rather than the enormous mountains in all but name in the north and Pale Moon Lake.

 

I’ll be honest, I was a sucker for the scenery. The gentle green rolling hills, the soft grass; It looked near photoshopped as the grass waved gently in the wind. The prairie back in the Before was the closest thing I could think of. There were herds of wild horses running across the hills and towns every five minutes, it seemed. The north was definitely sparser in population.

 

We were moving at a pretty steady clip. Yin was hopping along, Big D was taking his bounding leaps and Noodle was curled up with me. It was quite the relief not to haul around the cart. All of them were in good spirits, racing along with me.

 

I smiled at them.

 

And maybe I was looking at things with rose-tinted glasses right now, but the three places we had stopped in for the night had all been agreeable. The people were all kind and welcoming, eager to hear stories of the stranger from Pale Moon Lake or just have a drink with him. The fare was slightly different as well. A lot more beans than I was expecting, and even some kind of dish that tasted a lot like chili.

 

Needless to say I had picked up some beans for later, as well as the recipe. It was damn tasty for what it was.

 

Honestly though? Right now, with the sun on my back and good food in my belly, it felt a bit like I was on vacation. I would definitely be taking Meiling down here eventually, even if just to visit.

 

I felt an itch in my back and I started slowing down, glancing round at the road we were on and noticing the landmarks.

 

It was another one of those… Things. I had never been the greatest at reading maps. I had nearly taken a couple of wrong turns getting to the Azure Hills in the first place, and that was on the main thoroughfares. Here? We were running through often-times unmarked country roads, searching for a spot in a valley to turn off.

 

But, bringing out the map, and looking at the hills around us… I was certain this was the right place.

 

Three enormous hills , at the edge of the Northern Grass Sea.

 

“What do you guys think?” I aksed my companions. Noodle squinted at the map, and Big D hopped up onto my shoulder.

 

‘I do believe this is the Place, Great Master.’ Big D staind, and Noodle gave his assent too.

 

I nodded and we turned off the road. Our giant strides slowed as we got into the hills. The third one on the left. The one with the ghost of a path leading higher into it.

 

Master Gen certainly lived off the beaten path—not that I could really talk.

 

If we were not cultivators it would have been a rather arduous climb. Instead, it was a mostly pleasant walk up in the shade of the trees. There was no real sign of human habitation.

 

It was part way up the hill when things started to change. The hill became rockier and formed into a passageway. A ravine, really.

 

A ravine that felt a bit strange. We stepped forwards, between the two rocks and up the obvious path. For the briefest moment I felt something, like there was cool water on my skin, teasing the edges of my senses, before it faded away.

 

And then there was colour.

 

On either side there were two giant rocks, perhaps about thirty feet tall. They had a strange, swirling, multicoloured design upon them. It looked, for all the world, like strange, multi-colored ivy, or a thousand types of flowers, but the way it had been ‘painted’ was the interesting part.

 

There were no brushstrokes. Instead each line, each part of the design, was created by a handprint. Layered on top of each other a hundred, a thousand times.

 

And not human hands either, if I was right. The palm was too long. It was just slightly uncanny, and with the way the fingers looked? It was probably a monkey’s handprint. Or several hundred monkies' handprints.

 

"A bit like what Senior Sister Tigu makes,” Yin opined from where she was studying the wall.

 

“She’d probably like to see this, yeah,” I agreed. It did look kind of neat, and it led up into the rocks.

 

We continued up the hill, the sides of the pathway similarly covered in the whirling designs and I started to get a sense for them. They looked like stylized caves. Stalactites, mushrooms and waterfalls.

 

We reached the top of the incline and the passageway seemed to open, revealing a fence. It was much like mine back at home, but it was absolutely covered in fragments of crystal, hanging from strings.

 

On that fence was a monkey.

 

Another golden snub-nosed monkey, like the one Crystal Master Jing had. It was seated on one of the fence posts, scratching at its side.It was weaning a necklace, also made of crystal. It cocked its head to the side curiously when it noticed us staring at it.

 

It blinked languidly as we approached.

 

“Good afternoon?” I greeted it, wondering if it was a spirit beast. The money’s eyes held no spark, but neither did Babe’s.

 

The monkey considered us for a moment longer before hopping off the fence. It worked for a second at the other side and then the gate swung open, letting us in.

 

If I weren’t so used to this kind of stuff it would have seemed strange. A monkey butler, welcoming us in.

 

Familiar sights and smells welcomed us, as we entered the gate. The smell of my new home. Loamy soil, and growing crops.

 

Beyond the gate was a small farm on top of the hill. A small single person shack. Not even a year gone and it reminded me very much of my first house. There were small gardens, but no rice paddies. Just the stuff you would need to have fresh greens.

 

But the house was where the familiarity stopped. There was a large warehouse looking building—and a whole lot of crystals.

 

Water flowed out of crystal fragments, flowing like a spring out of the glowing blue pile into small irrigation canals by the gardens. Light was cast by others, like lamps. The trees around the fence and property must have had thousands of small crystal fragments, whether for decorations or something else I didn’t know.

 

And, of course, the multitude of monkeys hanging out on the roofs, or in some cases, doing the gardening.

 

The little one who had let us in dashed ahead, stopping at the porch and chittering at a man who was smoking a pipe. He had large sideburns and almost an afro with how bushy his orange-gold hair was. He had several necklaces and bracelets with small chunks of crystal in them.

 

“Oh? Visitors?” he asked, turning to face us. He raised a large eyebrow, smiling almost mischievously. “So, are you the ones old Jing sent our way?”

 

“Unless you were warned to meet anybody else from him,” I said. “Rou Jin greets you.”

 

Big D hopped forwards and bowed.

 

We pay our respects to Master Gen,” he intoned, with Yin and Noodle also bowing their heads.

 

The man stared at them, his eyes curious.

 

“Huh. Well I’ll be,” he muttered, before shaking his head. “Ah, you've mistaken me, my friends. I am not Master Gen. I am Song Ten, his assistant.”

 

Slowly, the older man got up.

 

“However, most are not allowed to meet with the Master and I deal with them. But with Master Jing vouching for you and your companions… I do believe an exception can be made. Come, follow me,” he said with a bow. A monkey clambered on top of his back.

 

He entered the house, holding open the door for us… and then removed one of the floorboards, revealing a ladder.

 

With an ease that spoke of doing this hundreds of times before, the spry-er than expected old man planted his hands and feet on either side of the sturdy metal device and just slid down.

 

“This way please!” his voice echoed up. With a shrug I followed, sliding down the ladder after him. We emerged into a small hallway, glowing bright with crystal and pleasantly cool. But it was kind of a warren. There were holes all over the ceiling and in the walls. Too small for a human… But probably just big enough for one of those monkeys.

 

Soon enough we reached a heavy wooden door, which Song opened.

 

We walked into a cacophony of noise.

 

Monkeys chattering away as they sorted rocks and crystals. Monkeys chirping as they worked grinding stones. Monkeys letting out loud whoops as they pounded at geodes with hammers.

 

And what looked like monkeys praying to a sarcophagus set into the far wall. They brought up carts loaded down with dirt or presented picks and hammers to the carved casket, bowing their heads.

 

I stopped walking and stared. I often compared my own life to a story book, with all the talking animals, but this was nuts. They had an entire monkey secret society down here! Monkey miners! Monkey crystal polishers! Monkey blacksmiths.

 

Are they all spirit beassssts?’ I heard Noodle whisper in confusion.

 

“No idea…” I whispered back.

 

It was an entire underground workshop, with tunnels leading deeper into the earth.

 

And one monkey in particular had a vest on and a pickaxe over his shoulder, standing on a small dais overlooking the work. His eyes were cold and stern, like a no-nonsense foreman, but he seemed pleased.

 

A good haul, brothers and sisters, a good haul!’ he shouted. His voice was gruff.

 

Song politely cleared his throat.

 

The monkey’s gaze leveled upon us. He glanced at me once, then turned his attention to the spirit beast companions with me.

 

He huffed.

 

“May I present Master Xang Gen Ten, Lord of the Xang Clan,” Song said. The monkey tapped at his throat twice, where there was a small shard of crystal.

 

“You. You are Jin? Friend of Mengde’s Crystal Emporium?” he asked. Not the odd kind of Qi Speech most spirit beasts had, but true, actual speech emanating from the crystal at his throat.

 

I raised my hands in greeting, and bowed. “Yes, Master Gen. This one is Rou Jin.” I greeted him politely.

 

This one is Fa Bi De,’ Big D said, as he bowed his head.

Liang Yin!

 

Miantiao.

 

Master Gen considered us all.

 

“I see now why he trusted you with our secret. I greet you all, friends of Mengde’s Crystal Emporium,” He stated, bowing back to us. “Come. Join me. I am not one for ceremony.”

 

He turned and beckoned us up to a second room where there were a couple of cushions for us to sit on.

 

“Now, show me this crystal you wish to transfer,” he grunted, as soon as we were seated. Blunt and to the point. “I have a selection that might be able to aid in this endeavour, but I shall need to see the piece first.”

 

Big D glanced at me then brought out the crystal, taking it from where it was tied on his back.

 

Gen’s eyes widened. “So, it was no lie. I have seen crystals of this design only once before.” He carefully took it from Big D’s wings, staring at it reverently.

 

He paused as his face shifted into a frown. “Friend Jing did not convey just how bad the state of this is, however. Heavens, has it been dropped?!”

 

Big D looked incredibly shifty for a moment.

 

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

 

And so again there was another couple of hours of waiting as somebody else examined the crystal.

 

“I can see confusion in your eyes. Speak,” the monkey stated as he examined the crystal, glancing up at us as we sat before him.

 

‘Are all out there spirit beasts?’ Noodle asked, out loud this time as he took a cup of tea from a monkey.

 

“Not quite,” Gen stated. “Near all these crystals, in our ancestor's home, they are nearly aware. About as smart as a human babe, or a bit smarter.”

 

“How did you get involved with the Crystal Emporium?” was my question. It was a bit odd. Mining monkeys.

 

“It was before my time. My own Master was the one who set the deal in place. Both of us just continue it, as we have for a thousand years. Now, we supply the majority of the crystals they use, and in return we are defended and left alone.”

 

“Does the barrier have anything to do with that?” I asked, remembering the strange feeling that had washed over me, and the sudden burst of colour in the ravine.

 

The monkey sighed. “If you already have experienced it, there is no point hiding it.Their founder was the one that crafted the barrier around this place. Any with ill intent are lost, unable to find our home.”

 

Though I had no idea if it was strong enough to send off a determined person. I suppose for the Azure Hills it was powerful enough.

 

“Mengde sends their most promising and loyal students to us. These hills, specifically this hill, has an abundance of crystals. Most are near unusable. Fragments and malformed things, but there are a lot of them. And for every hundred broken, there is perhaps one suitable to be used. We find the pearls and the diamonds. Or we did until this Biyu found out how to use the broken ones. I should like to meet that girl sometime in the future.”

 

We lapsed into silence. Big D pulled out his own map and tapped at where we were, considering it.

 

Quite close to the center of this giant formation. Big D quickly marked out several other places, equidistant apart from this one, around the formation.

 

He frowned at it. He looked up at Master Gen, and seemed to come to a decision.

 

There may be more crystals in these locations.’ Big D said, sliding the map over to the monkey.

 

Master Gen paused in his work, and picked up the map. His eyes widened, at the spiraling formation etched upon it.

 

“This..” He whispered, before he suddenly stood. He swiftly moved over to a portion of the wall, and grabbed a crystal out of the pocket on his vest. He pressed it onto the wall, and after a moment, it slid open. After a moment of rummaging around, the monkey turned back to us with an absolutely ancient looking piece of cloth. Carefully, he spread it out on the table, beside the map.

 

Upon the piece of cloth was the same spiraling design. Both rooster and monkey stared at the pieces.

 

“...this crystal. It contains the secrets of this formation?” Master Gen asked gruffly.

 

We believe so.’ Bi De said.

 

The Monkey chewed his lip for a moment.

 

“A trade. If there is any knowledge in this crystal of my Master, that shall be our payment.” The monkey demanded.

 

Bi De considered the bargain… and nodded.

 

Master Gen returned to his work with almost feverish energy, his eyes shining.

 

Eventually, after a small lunch brought to us by another set of monkeys, Gen nodded his head.

 

“It can be done.we shall use one of the ancients, from Master’s Tomb.” The monkey said reverently. “However, there are some issues. The transfer may be risky. The first is Qi. We shall need a lot of it to complete the transfer. The second… Once this starts, there is no going back. We cannot stop halfway through. The choice you must make— The slower route has a higher success rate, I do believe.. But it is not guaranteed.”

 

How long would it take if we did it this way?”Bi De asked.

 

“Three days,” the monkey replied.

 

I looked to Big D and shrugged. Three days? We should still be able to make the tournament, and with plenty of time too. Or at least the last final match if I had the day right.

 

“Your choice,” I said to him. A faster, but more dangerous route? Or a slower, more steady one?

 

Big D considered the crystal.


I do not know if I will be alive, if we take the slow way. Thirty years....” Big D said quietly. ‘I, who have lived but a year. The time Master Jing asked for is still unthinkable to me. It may be youthful recklessness… but I chose the fast way.

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A note from Casualfarmer

Man, today was a crapshow. First, our freezer malfunctioned sometime in the night, which led to all the food spoiling. And as we were clearing that up, my dad placed a thing of frozen grapes on the ground and forgot about it, which my dog ate. And grapes kill dogs. luckily, we caught it within like 30 min and took her to the vet to puke it up, but... lets just say its been fun yesterday and today.

 

Bletch.

 

So, thats why the chapter was so late. Everything is fine I think now, so theres that.

 

Not much to say, other than mining monkeys are here.

 

And Again, there will be a break from DEC 20-31 at the end of the month.

 

Finally, Mother of Learning by nobody 103 comes out today on Kindle! A classic timeloop story, so if you're into something like that, give it a look! 

https://www.royalroad.com/amazon/B09M2R6QLF

 

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


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