Bi De and Miantiao were silent as they walked together. While together, it was the usual state of affairs. Miantiao was the silent sort, and Bi De just appreciated the Snake’s company. Miantaio chuckled as Yin provoked the monkeys into play. She bounced up around the trees and onto the roof, much to the creatures' shrieking laughter. Bi De’s own Master was deep in conversation with Master Gen, the old monkey gesturing around while he groomed one of the little ones and occasionally reaching out to take a puff of his pipe.
It was slightly surreal, Bi De thought, to wander a place that was so similar yet so different from Fa Ram. The ambient Qi here was higher. Spirit Beasts, or at least, near Spirit Beasts went about their chores, aiding the human Song Ten.
The monkeys were smart. Yet, like his own offspring, the majority seemed to possess no true spark of their own. A duller, quieter thing. Like Chow Ji’s minions.
Bi De felt a mild sense of distaste at the servant creatures, yet there was little similarity to those rats so far. The monkeys seemed well-cared for, though their personalities were less mischievous than Bi De thought they should be. Another part of things Bi De knew, but were often incorrect. The beasts here were relatively serious and industrious, tending to the mines and even communicating by signing with their hands in addition to their usual calls and body language.
The ones beneath the ground universally wore helmets and had trinkets of crystal upon them, crafted lovingly by other monkeys.
He had now encountered three beasts that had power over their own kin; Chow Ji, that wolf who had terrorized his student's village, and now Master Gen. Bi De wondered if he had the same ability—to command the lesser chickens.
He did not know. He had never tried, really tried giving them orders like he witnessed. Could he infuse them more with his strength? An interesting question to explore later.
Bi De and Maintiao wandered the outskirts of this place, this Crystal Hill, as Master Gen named it. The day was nearing its end and they were all resting. Master Gen had started crafting the formation, pouring over scrolls so old they nearly were dust, copying out the arcane runes that made Bi De’s head hurt just looking at them while asking them to infuse their Qi into the array.
A task that was boring and draining in equal measure. But that was the trade off, time for risk.
Thirty changings of the season. Thirty winters. Thirty years. Bi De… Bi De could not comprehend it. He knew of cycles. He knew of time. Yet so much had changed in but two years. He could not image the transformation in thirty. He remembered the burnt out villages he had seen. Miantiao’s own decade of vengeance. Would Bi De still be around in ten years? He dearly hoped so.
And then, if something happened… he would have waited thirty years for failure anyway.
In the end, it was not a choice at all.
He wanted to know what this formation was all about. What caused the calamity.
At first, it had merely been about the dances. Curiosity. What did they do? He saw only a small portion of the formation, and assumed it whole. A short pursuit to learn and grow. But now..that was no longer the case. The dances and formation were connected to those past visions. The calamity that had burned the province to cinders.
He would learn what had happened. And after that, he had one goal.
To never let it happen again. If it did occur, then Fa Ram might be swallowed up by it, or Hong Yaowu, or the Eighth Correct Place.
The array was dead and mouldering. It had been for thousands of years. Reclaimed by nature. Taken over by spirit beasts.
But the images he had seen were too vivid. They were too painful to ignore.
So, he would learn this crystal’s secrets. He would study them and not allow the mistakes of the past to come forth once more. Even if he had to uproot every single stone and change the dances that had been taught for longer than there was memory.
He stopped at the edge of the small farm, at their own Great Pillars covered in old ropes and pieces of crystal.
Some form of protection. Bi De could feel little from it. He hadn’t truly noticed it. There had been a slight tingle on the edge of his senses, but nothing that made him stop and take notice.
‘An interesting construction. Ussseful to keep those unwanted out.’ Miantiao whispered from beside Bi De, staring at the crystals. Bi De knew his regrets, and his interest, well. If Miantiao’s village had had this then Sun Ken never would have slaughtered the inhabitants or ended Miantiao’s Master.
Bi De was interested but skeptical. It seemed too good to be true.
“It’s quite something, isn’t it?” Song Ten asked as he approached them. A small blue face poked up over his shoulder. The man looked at them with interest.
‘Indeed. How does one make such a formation?’ Miantiao asked lightly.
Song Ten puffed at his pipe. He looked at the formation, considering it.
“I have no idea,” he stated simply.
Miantiao blinked. ‘What?’ the snake asked, confused.
“We maintain it the best we can. But if there is a record on how it was created, such a thing was never left for us. Or Master Gen. We know not all the materials, the basis for the ritual, the full requirements for the alignment of the crystals…” Song Ten sighed and shrugged.
‘But could you not try to recreate this place, using what you do know?’ Bi De asked.
Song Ten shook his head. “I tried a hundred times. Nothing. It kept failing. It's what brought me here in the first place, to swear my oaths to Master Gen, and I’m no closer now after forty years than I was at the beginning.”
Both Bi De and Miantiao considered the man’s words.
“In my time with Master Gen, one thing is clear. Time degrades all things. The Glory of the past is never to be remade. All we can do is study their work and hope to ape a fraction of their glory.” He flashed a sardonic little smirk. “The crystals of the past were larger. They were better, with fewer defects. You know it yourself. The recording crystal that you brought is beyond the quality these hills produce nowadays.”
Was that true? Bi De frowned. The great formation that spanned the entirety of the hills. The powerful crystals. The visions that he had from the crystal they were trying to fix. His words were not entirely false, were they? They were lesser than the past.
Song Ten looked at Bi De's considering expression. “There used to be hundreds of Spirit Beasts here, or so the tales say. That they could even transform into humans. Many left, to either travel outside the province or live among the people. Yet now… all that's left is this.”
He gestured forwards out into the lands. The wind blew through the trees. Like so many places in the Azure Hills, it was a remnant of what had come before.
Song Ten looked melancholic. “I do hope you find some value in that crystal of yours. The Profound Wisdom of the Ancients always does surpass ours.”
Bi De frowned at the ancient formation. Some of Song Ten’s words were true. Yet… they had one flaw. He turned back to his Great Master—who had a monkey on his back going through his hair while he himself picked through the fur of another. Several were hanging off his arms and two were using his feet for seats.
Song Ten snorted at the view as Master Gen watched over them and puffed away on his pipe.
‘With respect, Master Song Ten, I do not believe the past is always the pinnacle. I think that they may have grown to a lofty height… But in time we may be able to surpass it. After all, I know a Spirit Beast who has turned into a human, who changed in less than a year.’
Song Ten puffed at his pipe, considering Bi De’s words.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he finally said, shaking his head.
There was a call for dinner as a monkey wearing an apron walked awkwardly out of the house, much to the Great Master’s amusement.
Bi De let out a breath and looked up at the sky. Tomorrow was another full day of work upon the formation before the transfer could begin.
Hopefully it would end well. Hopefully he would have his answers and he would see his companions again. His Great Master had said that after this they would be travelling to the Dueling Peaks.
A Tournament. A place to battle. Tigu was likely enjoying herself greatly, surrounded by others who wished to fight.
Tigu was on the edge of her seat as she watched the arena below her. Qi swirled around the combatants. Their faces were masks of concentration as they gave it their all battling their enemy.
Yet there was a lapse in concentration, an opening.
The young man’s eyes bugged out as the Qi surged out of control and the pill furnace started to shake and rattle.
He shoved it off the bench and dove to the side behind the wall. The pill furnace hit the bottom of the ditch constructed for this purpose—yet instead of simply cracking and setting off a muffled whump that happened to the previous contestant, its top blew off and sent the tumbling furnace straight up into the air, where it then exploded in a flash of multi-coloured light.
“He tried to speed up the process and took a calculated risk! But I do declare he needs to study his math formations more!” the Announcer Man declared as the crowd howled with laughter. “I think that's the best one we’ve had yet!”
“This is great,” Gou Ren declared as he shoved more food into his mouth. He wasn’t as bothered by the presence of Damp Pond… and neither was the Smaller Blade of Grass. But that was mostly because the woman looked like death had walked over her grave and was wincing at every explosion. The rest of the Petals were back at the house and looking terribly defeated. Tigu had seen their expressions before, when the guests came for her Master’s wedding. It was a “hangover”, an ailment that Ri Zu had said there was no cure for.
“I think they saw that one in Pale Moon Lake City!” the Announcer Man shouted as another furnace exploded.
Tigu laughed and cheered along with the Xong Brothers. This was spectacularly exciting, and the Fat Man’s commentary was making it even better. There was Qi and explosions. It was no real fight, but it was fun.
Ri Zu didn’t seem to think so though. She had found out there were pill furnaces involved and refused to come, instead staying at the house with the rest of the groaning Petals and looking over her medical scrolls. From what Tigu saw she was looking at the structure of legs and making notes.
She said she would be introducing herself to Damp Pond and her little brother soon. Tigu was quite proud of her!
But there was one small blemish on things.
“I wish the Master was here,” Tigu shouted above the crowd to Xiulan. “He would enjoy this a lot.”
Xiulan chuckled as the top of a pill furnace burst open, spewing out multi-coloured streamers of light. “Yes, I think Master Jin would like this very much,” she agreed.
They settled in for the rest of the day. They met up with Loud Boy again, as well as Rags and Handsome Man, to go see the performance that was on that night.
The Tale of the First Emperor was kind of boring, but it was still enjoyable.
A man watched a recording. His eyes were focused on it completely. The movements. The positions of her arms.
The feral eyes. The look of glee on her face as she battered her opponent into submission. Lu Ban smiled. Yes, she was perfect. Well, not perfect. She would need some work first, to properly cultivate that violence. But she had potential. The way her eyes narrowed into slits and her body contorted. And she was in the category of the sectless. She was sure to jump at his offer.
Rou Tigu was, as far as Lu Ban was concerned, even better than Cai Xiulan. This trip had not been wasted after all.
Lu Ban smiled, even as there was a knock on his door.
“Young Master, the report you asked for.” Chang’s voice carried through the wall.
“You may enter,” he stated, resetting the recording to the beginning. “Anything?” he asked, affecting boredom. He wanted to know more about his future acquisitions. A feast and a servant. Truly the heavens were smiling upon him.
“They did not seem aware of my observance, Young Master. There was little of note. She is from the north of the province. However, Rou Tigu did mention a master. Cai Xiulan referred to him as Master Jin,” Chang said, bowing his head.
Lu Ban’s hand spasmed. “Master Jin?” he asked, his good mood dying.
From the north. North, where he was humiliated. Humiliated by a Jin.
“Yes, Young Master.”
Lu Ban’s hand started shaking as he clenched his fists.
“I see. Leave.”
“Do you know a Jin Rou?” the man in his room demanded, intent flooding out of his body. His eyes were cold and resolute, like the face of a mountain that rose above the clouds.
Rou Tigu. Master Jin. Master Jin Rou? Rou Jin?
He clenched his fists until the shaking stopped.
Blood dripped to the floor, where his fingernails had cut the skin.