There was a click. Then, once more, connection. A girl wearing a yellow helmet panted, smiling at the little pristine golden pathway that traveled here. She was getting better at this.
This part of the road… It was bad. Terrible. It was some of the worst she had seen. Well, that wasn’t quite true. There was a patch near where the Connected One, Her Connected One had gone, near that cursed lake, where there was just nothing left at all. The road was so torn and shattered that there was no trace, save for where the web abruptly ended.
Here? Well, there were at least bits left.
Lots and lots of little bits.
And further in… roads. Roads like the ones near her home, the great rents, and scattered pieces barely hanging on.
A part of herself. A part that she had only the most tenuous of connections to, but she knew, if she went any further with her road, the pieces would connect.
And a part of herself would slot into place.
She reached out a hand.
She clenched her fist and grimaced, pulling back. She staggered backwards, and bumped up against a massive body.
The enormous boar made of earth chuffed with concern, a yellow helm also covering his head.
The girl grumbled, and pressed her face into the boar’s flank, drawing comfort from it. Her trusty steed rumbled comfortingly, nuzzling at her.
The girl climbed onto his nuzzling snout and Chun Ke lifted his head obligingly, allowing her to roll onto his back.
She curled up into a ball, and pulled the helmet off of her head. It was kind of uncomfortable, with its odd brim and bright colours.
‘Hardhat protect Big Little Sister’s melon. Big Little Sister is building, needs hat,’ the boar had declared authoritatively. So she had made them. Made them of bits of herself, and of her Qi. ‘Boss’ the character on the front said.
An amusing distraction.
The girl sighed with frustration, dropping the yellow thing onto her face.
‘Is scary and painful?’ the boar rumbled beneath her.
“...yeah.” the girl whispered to him. “It's scary. But... I should… I should get this over with. I need to…”
The boar shook his head. “Is fine. Take slow. Big Little Sister go at her own pace. And when ready... Family and friends go help as we can.”
Her fists clenched the rust-red grass that made up his coat, and she bit her lip.
“Besides, Chun Ke do what you did to Pretty Flower and Tigu’er if you go too fast. Not good to not follow one’s own words.”
The girl laughed, despite herself. “Oh? You seek to challenge my skull?”
“Chunke head like rock. Will win!” The boar chuckled merrily.
The little girl slapped the boar’s stone back, and rolled, laughing with him until their merriment petered out.
“Big Little Sister is with Big Brother now… how about we go ahead a bit? Meet with Tigu’er, Rizzu, Little Brother Gou, Pretty Flower, and Yun. Make path for big brother this time, instead of the other way around?” Chun Ke asked her.
The girl mulled over the question. They weren’t her connected ones, but… well…
Gou Ren ruffling her hair and giving her piggy back rides… before throwing her in a mud pit.
The dreams of a boy haunted by a fox spirit and a sword he didn’t notice. They watched over him with fond eyes, as he showed her his latest masterpiece.
A silly cat, with the same wish she had once had.
A dancer, who didn’t know how to dance properly.
The girl hopped off the boar’s back, and shoved her helmet back on her head. The boar sniffed the air.
“That way.” He declared, pointing with his snout.
The little girl nodded, and took a step forwards, into the darkness.
Each step traced in gold.
The night spent on Crystal Hill was pretty peaceful, save for the fact that a bunch of monkeys decided I looked very pillow-shaped.
It probably would have been unbearably hot, if that stuff largely didn’t bother me anymore unless I really thought about it. The heat, the humidity, even the cold… I could feel it, and feel when things were nice, but I didn’t really sweat or feel the heat unless I was really working.
Then again, I could also reach straight into ovens or swim in frozen lakes with no trouble, so it wasn’t that surprising.
And in the morning, I got treated to a little bit of a childhood dream of mine.
Well, not really monkey butlers, but a pack of monkeys starting cooking fires and chopping ingredients under the watchful eye of Song Ten. It was like Xiulan’s blade symphony in the mornings, or Wa Shi setting out all the ingredients.
I tried to help… but I got waved back to the table, as I was a guest.
Instead, Myself, Noodle, and Big D were going over the formation with Master Gen. He had completed the rough part of it overnight. Apparently, it had mostly been done already, a tweaked version of one of his Master’s designs.
“So, do we agree on this design?” Master Gen asked.
I looked at it closely. There wasn’t anything obvious that I could see that was off. Rou didn’t have a particularly strong grounding in formations, and neither did I, but wracking his memories he could recognise some things. Gramps had mostly taught him how to recognise things that would hurt him and how to break certain points on them, rather than how they worked and how to put them together. And all of Rou’s knowledge on it was theoretical at best.
I nodded. “You know, I was expecting for you to be a bit more cagey with this information.” I said to the boss monkey as a couple of the babies combed through my hair. The little brats had decided I was a jungle gym, I didn’t really mind, and the gruff Master Gen seemed to be warming up to me, at least a little bit. He snorted as Yin dashed across the room, chased by a small horde of monkeys, hooting and hollering.
Cute little things.
Master Gen looked at the scroll. “Master was adamant that all formations that take as much Qi as this will be checked over by both parties. He said it was too easy to slip something in if a man was unscrupulous.”
Well, that was the paranoid cultivator mindset, but… well, I couldn’t really blame that. It was a good idea, and seeing as I was going to be hooked into it I would have to make sure it wasn’t doing anything bad.
It looked like I was gonna be a battery again.
“Then we shall begin the construction of the array.” The gruff, no nonsense monkey declared. He took a drag on his pipe and then his eyes changed, subtly.
‘I ask for my kin. Who will hear this call?’ He ‘said’, reverting to the Qi speech. His voice echoed oddly.
And the monkeys around us perked up, like they had been jolted by lightning. They seemed to escalate wildly between being… well, monkeys, and being as coordinated as a human. A spark of something bled into a few of their eyes.
His call was answered. Swiftly, ten monkeys lined up, carrying picks and chisels.
‘Hai Ten, Feng Ten, Po Ten, Li Ten…’ The old monkey whispered the names fondly as he got up, walking over to them and clapping each on the shoulder in turn. ‘Thank you.’
‘This ability… I must confess my ignorance of how it works.’ Big D observed.
Master Gen looked upon the monkeys, almost spirit beasts. “It is a stirring of the soul. It may be used for control… but I am no emperor. They are my family. To take them as completely as I could… To control them, to sacrifice them on a whim? It would be an unforgivable sin.”
Big D stared at the monkey for a moment, before bowing his head and raising his wings in respect.
‘I appreciate you enlightening me, Master Gen.’ The rooster intoned.
Master Gen coughed, seeming slightly embarrassed. “Now, enough of this. This ritual must be performed in a specific place. We must go to the Underground.”
Big D winced.
It was a long way down.
We entered the workshop again, and then into one of the tunnels beyond that.
The tunnels that had largely been built for creatures barely three feet tall.
I was 6’2 and.., well, bulky.
At least I wasn’t alone in my claustrophobia. Big D didn’t look particularly enthusiastic about being down here either, while Yin and Noodle were unconcerned.
Some parts I got to stand up in when the ceiling expanded.
Most of the tunnels down this way were lit by crystals, but there were long stretches of darkness and those were lit by mushrooms of all things.
Glowing mushrooms ran the colors of the rainbow, growing from the walls and floor. They had an almost neon hue, like a synthwave album cover, or those glow in the dark mini putt places. Absently, I tapped one of them and a shimmer of spores came off, glowing in the darkness and coating my finger.
“Are these edible?” I asked curiously, hopping to distract myself.
Master Gen paused in his forward march and plucked one off the wall. “They are not poisonous, no… but they do not taste particularly good.” With a shrug he bit into it and drops of glowing purple, almost ink-like ichor, splattered on the ground.
He chewed and swallowed, before opening his mouth and revealing that it was glowing.
I chuckled and pulled the mushroom off the wall.
It tasted a bit like… well, kind of like chewing on leather. Slimy leather. With an undertone of that goop that used to be super popular—yes, I know, to my shame, what that tastes like.
Yeah… definitely not eating these too often. But now I had a glowing green mouth, so I was obviously the winner here.
And then Yin started purposefully rubbing against them so her fur was streaked neon. I grinned at the rabbit and she giggled, painting on Big D’s feathers. He was distracted enough not to really notice.
“Just a bit further.” Master Gen said smiling with neon teeth shining in the dark..
We just had a couple more squeezes until we were through.
Naturally, that was when I got a bit stuck.
Panic surged in my throat, and I took a breath at the sudden tight feeling around my chest—and the stone gave way from the act of breathing in.
Luckily, without collapsing the tunnel.
I swallowed thickly.
“Everything alright back there?” Master Gen asked.
I glanced back down at Noodle, who raised his good eyebrow.
“Great! Everythings good!” I called back and went around the last bend.
My jaw dropped.
There was a jungle underground.
Massive ferns with fronds so big they could be used as blankets. Carpets of moss covered the ground, forming a soft and springy carpet under our feet. Waterfalls spilled down the walls, kicking up clouds of mist, making the air so humid that water would condense on your skin. The air was hot and humid, with a bit of stagnation, but honestly less than I was expecting. There was something down here refreshing the air.
The ceiling was dominated by a set of enormous light crystals, so bright and shiny that you could think you were outside under the sun.
Finally, there was a space in the center of the rivers, directly underneath the center of the crystals in the roughly circular room.
I let out a whistle. Master Gen was frowning at the ceiling.
“A bit brighter than usual…” He muttered before shaking his head. “This is where we shall perform the transfer.”
Master Gen pulled out his scroll, concentrated on the formation on the page, then closed his eyes.
The monkeys perked up, like they had when Master Gen called them.
‘This is what needs to be done, my brothers and sisters.’
Picks were unlimbered. Chisels prepared. Master Gen pulled his helmet onto his head.
The monkeys began their work.
The restaurant was once more crowded and busy when they sat down for their evening meal. Xiulan passed out some of the wine to An Ran.
“Have you never seen that play?” Huyi asked Yun Ren, who was looking at his recording crystal.
“Nah. We live too far away from the cities. We only get puppet shows, if that.” He said. “Those costumes were great though.”
“Yes, the colours were commendable! Bright Smile, that was the founding of your sect?!” Tigu shouted across the hall.
“It was! Quite the tale, wasn’t it? My Honoured Ancestor had quite the way with words!” Cheng Yang of the Framed Sun Sect shouted from his own table.
“Didn’t he also write The Wind Blows?” Guo Daxian heckled.
“Lies and slander!” Cheng Yang roared.
“I have two mouths and two voices, one speaks willingly, the other without my consent…” Daxian started and there were several chuckles.
“It has no name on it! How can anybody think that the venerable wordsmith would be so crude?!” Cheng Yang whined.
Yun Ren shook his head, a grin on his face. “We could try our own production at some point. My images would make for fantastic sets.”
“Maybe we could do a production of the Demon-Slaying Orchid.” Gou Ren needled Xiulan. She glared at the cheeky grin on his face.
Tigu perked up. “Ah, I can portray her perfectly!” She shouted before grabbing several of the baozi on the table and stuffing them down her shirt. “Behold! I am the Demon-Slaying Orchid!”
Xiulan stared at Tigu’s suddenly bulging chest and haughty expression. It worked surprisingly well on her.
“You need a few more in there.” Xianghua said, her lips twitching.
Xiulan palmed her face.
She enjoyed these fools… most of the time.
Tie Delun and Loud Boy came over to talk to Tigu. Guo Daxian kept the argument running with Cheng Yang for far too long. Gou Ren finally gave up and opened his mouth, about to accept an offering from a triumphant Xianghua… when Xiulan beat her to the punch, shoving one of her dumplings into his mouth and making him choke.
“So, what are we doing tomorrow?” Tigu asked excitedly as they walked back to the manor. Xianghua and her brother had left them, leaving only the members of the Verdant Blade Sect and companions. “Rags and Loudboy want to go gambling!”
“You’re not going gambling!” Yun Ren and Huyi both yelped.
Xiulan rolled her eyes as Tigu started complaining, and caught a glimpse of Gou Ren who was walking slightly slower than everybody else. He appeared contemplative.
“A coin for your thoughts, Junior Brother?” Xiulan asked.
Gou Ren startled, glancing over at Xiulan, before looking at the backs of everybody else. A soft smile stole across his face.
“They aren’t much. Just this stuff? Well, it's been fun. I’m glad—I’m glad I came.”
Xiulan smiled at his words. “I’m glad you are here too. Yun Ren, Ri Zu... even Tigu.” She jabbed.
Gou Ren chuckled.
The manor was quiet when they arrived after they evening drew to a close and everyone returned to their Sects. Quiet, save for Bolin, her father’s man, who waved Xiulan over.
“The Elders wish to speak with you, Young Mistress.” he whispered in her ear.
Xiulan sighed and nodded.
She waved her companions goodnight and entered the main building.