Xiulan entered the meeting room and bowed to her Elders. They were arranged as they always were, her father at the head of the room and the Elders flanking him. But there was something subtly off about their demeanor. Her father especially almost seemed annoyed, before his face smoothed out and he acknowledged her.
“Forgive us old men for calling you so late in the day, daughter,” he stared off, “but there are things that need to be addressed.”
“As the Elders will.” She stated formally.
“First, we wish to congratulate you, Disciple. Reaching the final round of the tournament is no easy feat, and we applaud your strength.” Her father’s voice was formal and full of warmth at her accomplishment. He gazed upon her with pride… before he glanced out of the sides of his eyes at the other Elders. They nodded along at his words before Cai Xi Kong straightened his back and looked directly at Xiulan.
“The hour of the final bout draws near, Disciple, and though we have no doubt about your ability…our honored Elders have a few questions about…decorum.” His voice was stern and firm.
Xiulan sat up a tiny bit straighter in surprise and opened her mouth to answer, when Elder Yi interjected.
“We have observed you, these past days. It does a warrior no good to be lax. Especially for one to be getting drunk and galavanting off with other sects. This is not the way the Verdant Blade Sect does things.”
Xiulan’s face flushed red in anger at Yi’s words. But with that rage came a twinge of guilt at an Elder stating it so openly. She had been drinking and relaxing instead of cultivating. Was it that obvious? Was it that worthy of rebuke?
“I am fully confident in my abilities,” she had managed. “I have sparred with Tigu many times, and this is no different. We both know the outcome of this bout.”
Tigu would fight anyway, of course, and try her hardest to win. But neither considered this match much. It was almost routine.
Elder Yi looked like he wanted to press the issue, but her father intervened.
“We were all young, once.” Cai Xi Kong stated, glaring at Elder Yi. “But.. take care that you do not overindulge. We merely wished to hear your thoughts upon the final match. And isn’t it good that she is so confident that she does not need to train at the moment? You all know our Dutiful Young Mistress’ nature. Do you think she would change it so easily?”
There were a couple more nods, while her father turned to look directly at Yi. They engaged in a silent battle of wills/ before Elder Yi turned away.
“I am merely concerned for her wellbeing.” Yi stated stiffly, then turned to Xiulan. “Beware you do not fall off a virtuous path. If you are to be an Elder, you must hold yourself to a higher standard.”
She barely restrained herself from storming out of the meeting room. Her back was ramrod straight.
Yet as much as she hated the question, as much as she was angry... Elder Yi’s words did cut deep.
She had done absolutely no training since she returned. She hadn’t even meditated.
Xiulan grimaced and paused. Instead of heading back to her quarters her feet took her to the rooftop. Xiulan leaned back against the roof and sighed. One leg was pulled up to her chest, while the other dangled off the edge of the roof and out into open air.
How quickly a mood can be ruined.
She had thought she had been prepared. Prepared to stand atop the Azure Hills. But as the tournament progressed, the feeling of fire and assurance had faded. She respected her opponents. She fought and rose higher.
She was likely going to win the Dueling Peaks Tournament, the greatest tournament for her generation in the Azure Hills. The biggest event in eight years… and... and she didn’t care. The pride was gone. The drive was gone. The finals evoked no special emotion in her. It was just another fight with Tigu, just this time in front of an audience.
It was not the culmination of her journey. A bright spot upon her path. It was not everything that she once wanted.
It was something she was doing because she thought she had to. It was a chore.
She was more concerned with seeing plays and drinking with her companions, with making up for lost time interacting with others.
Instead of wishing for triumph… She was just wishing that the tournament was over already, so she could go and give Tigu a tour of the Grass Sea.
She was practically shirking all of her duties.
In some ways… it felt like a betrayal. A betrayal of her ideals, and a betrayal of the people who relied on her sect.
Winning the tournament would help her sect. It would help the mortals who relied upon them for protection. It would increase their prestige and might.
Xiulan bit her lip. Loyalty. Duty. Ideals she had tried to live her life by. The tales of virtuous warriors had enthralled her as a child. The deeds of stalwart protectors drove her onwards, so that she could have perhaps a fraction of their nobility and virtue.
Had she betrayed those ideals? Was she merely galavanting around? Hearing one of her Elders say it had been a blow to her heart.
She had to be better, because she was to be in a position of authority. Her sect was going to make her an Elder.
Yet they still treated her like a slip of a girl who didn’t know any better.
Too far in one direction was the life of Sun Ken, doing as she pleased and taking what she wanted. Yet too far in the other was barely a life at all.
She was pulled. Pulled in two directions. Duty. Happiness. The Verdant Blade Sect. The Azure Hills.
She had gotten strong. But her strength was aimless.
Choose your own destiny, Xianghua scolded.
What did she want to do? What was this strength of hers for?
It was a question that more and more needed an answer.
She tapped her fingers against her leg. She stared up at the moon and started muttering the names of the soldiers that had fallen in the valley. She had started doing it less and less. Some nights she didn’t do it at all, as her dreams grew more peaceful.
But it was part of why she had trained so hard. Her strength was to protect. Protect not just her sect, but those who could not protect themselves. That was her original reason for getting stronger.
Do it for yourself, Master Jin said as he slung an arm around her shoulder with a smile.
Her father had agreed with Yi. that she had been a bit too lax. The weight of responsibility was heavy.
The mortals smiled as they marched with her.
The valley filled with screams.
Part of the reason why Sun Ken was so successful was the fact that he knew these hills. He knew of the petty sect rivalries and would flee in between their territories. When an Elder tried to hunt him down, they would often be intercepted by another sect asking pointed questions about what they were doing on their land.
And that he was too weak. Too beneath them. A prize for the younger generation, as he only reaved mortals.
It was disgusting. Even she hadn’t acted until her own people were threatened.
Rivalries and petty squabbles had prolonged the suffering of others for decades—
“Blade of Grass, there you are!” Tigu shouted, as she clambered onto the roof. “We were wondering why you didn’t come back!”
Xiulan, startled out of her introspection, nearly fell off the roof.
“Ah.. I’m fine Tigu. Just thinking.” Xiulan replied.
“Eh. You think too much. Tigu decided. “Always with that look on your face, too. C'mon, Rags and Loud Boy are back, and they found a tasty food stall!”
Tigu pulled, and Xiulan allowed herself to be dragged to her feet.
You don’t need to face the heavens alone, Senior Sister said as she cradled Xiulan’s head in her lap and ran her fingers through Xiulan’s hair.
Guo Daxian, Tie Delun, and the Young Masters and Mistresses of the sects all in a room together. Talking and laughing, instead of staring down at each other with domineering sneers.
Something had happened that night during their frivolous party. Maybe it was a one off thing. Maybe those feelings would fade in time.
But Xiulan… Xiulan got an idea.
What if… what if she could keep those feelings going? What if she could make that brief connection into something more permanent…?
It was a thought that held her as she descended from the rooftop, pulled along by Tigu.
Perhaps… perhaps that galavanting around was not so frivolous…?
It had been many long hours underground, but this time Bi De did not find it quite so oppressive. The large, vaulted ceiling and the light probably helped.
And the fact that he had something to focus upon.
Bi De felt his soul stir as Master Gen finished the formation. His own blood dripped into key points. A spiraling formation was carved into the floor. The symbols of the elements stood out clearly, arranged around a stone pillar that jutted up from the floor. On either side of the pillar the crystals would be placed in the gaps formed by the carving of the taijitu, the symbols for Yin and Yang arrayed precisely in the center.
Master Gen’s brow was heavy with exhaustion, but he held himself well. With his kin around him he could work like he had twelve additional pairs of hands.
It seemed it was a more willing exchange, and one that seemed to cost Gen Ten greatly rather than taxing his followers.
“It is time.” The old monkey declared. His voice carried out along the cavern. There was a nod from more of Master Gen’s kin. They had slowly trickled down during the day, bringing with them food and water as well as items for the ritual.
The crystals in the ceilings dimmed.
Drums thundered in the deep.
Shrieks and cries echoed off the vaulted ceiling.
Picks hammered in unison onto the ground.
There must have been nearly a hundred monkeys gathered around them. Their faces were covered by masks. Their crystal jewelry rattled and chimed.
Ten of them carried with them a funerary urn. Another, a sealed case.
“Great and Honored Ancestor, please watch over your unworthy sons and daughters…” Master Gen whispered.
The funerary urn was placed with great reverence on the ground while Master Gen approached the sealed case.
From within he withdrew a crystal. It was obviously ancient. It had some of the same carvings upon it like Bi De’s crystal had, but it was also... Lesser. It looked slightly rougher. The facets not quite the equal to the one Bi De had. But it was also in pristine condition. It had no extra pieces coming off it. No crystals fused to it.
Master Gen nodded to Bi De, and then to the Great Master.
Bi De approached the dias in unison with Master Gen.
The drumming reached a fever-pitch.
Both placed their crystals upon the platforms and retreated. The monkey nodded to the human.
The drumming stopped.
Bi De’s Great Master grumbled, just barely loud enough to hear.
“I love battery duty.”
He took a breath—
And the formation lit up.
A beam of light connected the two crystals together, and the empty one started to glow.
‘Is it working?’ Bi De asked.
Master Gen nodded.
“It is. Now…. all we can do is wait.”