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A note from Casualfarmer

And I return for the new year. Just a word of warning. this chapter is quite dark.

Xiulan’s heart pounded in her ears as she raced across the town around the Dueling Peaks, towards a small, forested hill just out of town.

 

“Yeah, they said they were headed for Little Pimple. A bit far for us to get to tonight, but they should be back soon.” The mortal friend of Rags had said.

 

She sped onwards to the hill, focused on the objective. A little creature hung on in her shirt, shaking slightly.

 

“Where are the brothers?” Xioulan asked her. She hadn’t time to check, but they should still be in town.

 

‘Gou Ren is with Xianghua. Yun Ren went with the Petal-grasses, still at the party.’

 

Xiulan breathed a small sigh of relief.

 

Most likely safe, then. In town and surrounded. A strike in full view of everybody wouldn’t go over well— But… would that stop them?

 

Riu Zu’s story had sent chills down her spine. Xiulan’s swords floated behind her as she sprinted, but she didn’t know the first place to start looking. She couldn’t just bash down the doors to the Shrouded Mountain Sect’s quarters—she didn’t even know if they had her. Could he have even gotten Tigu in the time he was in their sect? Had he sent others?

 

Xiulan didn’t know. All she knew was that Tigu was with two sectless companions and likely isolated.

 

Xiulan poured on the speed. She raced to the mountain, her eyes searching for clearings.

 

Please, please, let this all be nothing—

 

Riu Zu let out a mournful squeak. Xiulan’s heart fell.

 

A shattered bottle of wine. Cuts in the trees. Disturbances in a savaged clearing, evidence of a short and brutal fight.

 

Blood.

 

Xiulan skidded to her knees. Rags was flat on his back. His chest was torn open, red pooling into the dirt.

 

Heart Beating. Barely. His Qi is….’ Ri Zu cut herself off with a grimace. Her little hands moved to her pouch of medicine and she pulled out a pill. A pill made of the Spiritual Herbs.

 

But she hesitated. Her eyes flicked to the ball of medicine.

 

‘....one more left after this.’ She whispered. ‘And it might not be enough.’

 

Xiulan closed her eyes. “Do your best.”

 

Ri Zu nodded.

 

Xiulan stood, looking around. There was Rags, but where was—Xiulan saw a trail leading down the side of the peaks.

 

Pushed over grass and a trail of blood.

 

Xiulan followed it as Ri Zu tended to Rags, mashing up the medicine pill and mixing it with some water, hoping to be able to get it down Rags’ throat.

 

The trail got quite far down the mountain, before she saw who made it.

 

Loud Boy was slumped against a tree. His eyes were hazy and he was muttering to himself. Tear tracks stained his face. His shirt had been blown open, revealing a conspicuous mark near his navel. An impact mark where his Dantian would be.

 

Gotta warn them, gotta warn them, gotta warn them…” he whispered repeatedly as he hiccuped a sob. Blood splattered to the ground from his mouth as he coughed.

 

Xiulan was beside him in an instant. The boy startled and flailed at her, his eyes going wild.

 

Xiulan gently caught the blow and cupped his face with a hand.

 

“Loud—Zang Wei. Zang Wei, it’s Xiulan.” she whispered to him.

 

The boy paused in his flailing. His face twisted as more hot tears stained his face. He tried to look away from her.

 

Xiulan pulled him into a hug. The boy stiffened in shock before collapsing onto her.

 

“What happened?” she whispered to him, as sobs wracked his body.

 

He couldn’t be more than fifteen at most.

 

“I don’t know. I don’t know. The men... they came out of the trees. They said they were Shrouded Mountain Sect, and that Tigu had to go with them.” he choked into her dress.

 

“She said… she said that she couldn’t go with strangers without telling other people first. They said she had to go with them now. We tried to fight—we tried, but Tigu was still tired from her battle, and they… they killed Rags and… and…” The boy hiccuped. One hand went from where he was holding Xiulan to his stomach.

 

They had destroyed his cultivation.

 

Xiulan’s breath was a sharp intake and she felt her own stomach clench. She took a deep, steadying breath.

 

She pulled back.

 

“Zang Wei. Zang Wei, listen to me. Rags is still alive.” Xiulan said in what she hoped was a reassuring voice.

 

The boy spasmed, hope blossomed on his face.

 

“Ri Zu is taking care of him. He might be in bad shape, but she thinks he might be able to make it through the night.”

 

“But… but what about Tigu? They took her away.” His voice wobbled.

 

Blood. The Valley. Sun Ken.

 

“I’ll take care of it. I’ll make sure nothing bad happens.” Xiulan said with a forced smile.

 

Loud Boy’s grip on her hands was weak. But for a brief moment, it firmed.

 

“Don’t let them take her.”

 

“I won’t.”

 

Never again.

 

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



Ri Zu’s heart pounded in her chest. Her breath came in little gasps. Her nose tasted the air, picking up the faint scent of blood in the wind. There was a small commotion behind this place. The sounds of movement.

 

She stared up at the imposing walls of the manor. The guest house Xiulan said was the only place that they could be.

 

Xiulan was tending to Loud Boy and Rags. The look on her face had been calm, but Ri Zu could see the pain and fury within her crystal blue eyes.

 

The same pain and fury Ri Zu felt.

 

But they needed information. They needed to know if Tigu was actually in the guest building, or somewhere else entirely.

 

Ri Zu swallowed. She closed her eyes. Hger thundering heart quieted.

 

Ri Zu ascended the wall. Her steps were soft and silent, a wraith in the dark.

 

Her head poked up over the top, her nose sniffing rapidly.

 

“Stack that one over there.” a voice said from a man carrying a crate. “They want to be gone by sunrise.” Ri Zu froze, and stopped herself from flinching.

 

She cursed.

 

Clambering down from the wall she skirted along the outside of it avoiding the men packing bags. She followed the light taste of blood and what was unmistakably now Tigu.

 

She paused for a moment, when she got to the house. Then clambered up the side, and into the rafters.

 

Tigu was here. Riu Zu was fairly certain of that. But where exactly? She had the scent, but it was still a bit muddled with blood and sweat.

 

“I can’t wait to be rid of this hell hole. This entire Province is like a pig shitting into my soul.” a voice grumbled to laughter.

 

“This sits ill with me.” A calm, exacting voice stated. “For what purpose was this carried out?”

 

There was the sound of rustling, and a heavy body shifting.

 

“Come off it Yingwen. The Young Master said the girl challenged the sect, spitting in his face when he tried to offer her a place with us. Such insults can’t be borne, you know.”

 

Yingwen clicked his tongue. “I was the one who said that yesterday, fool. Indeed, a firm chastisement is only right and proper. But to take her? That is beneath the might of our Sect. Bordering on uncouth, I might even say. It could be tolerated but he even wants us to collect the others with the same symbol she bears.”

 

Ri Zu paused at the statement, and got closer. She poked her head into the room. A large, muscled man was lounging on the floor while another thin and dressed proper looking leaned against the wall, his brow furrowed. Both had long, sleek hair in topknots… and were surrounded by copious amounts of bottles lining the floor. Even as she watched, the thin one drained another, glaring at it.

 

“Uncouth is allowing one to tarnish the name of the Shrouded Mountain. Let her hang, or be remoulded into something useful.” A third voice intoned, sitting down. He had grey hair and eyes.

 

Yingwen scoffed.

 

“Brother, how was guard duty?” Fenxian said, tossing him a bottle.

 

The man caught it. “Boring. She’s still unconscious, but she’s a tough little beast, some of her bruises are fading already. Or you’re getting weak. Six strikes to take down, Fenxian? For shame.”

 

Ri Zu felt her face twisting as fury filled her.

 

Yingwen’s head snapped up, his eyes searching.

 

Ri Zu froze. Her heart slowed to nearly a stop. Her Qi dissipated into nothing. She pushed herself carefully back into the slight hole in the wall that let her poke her head out.

 

“What’s the matter, Yingwen?” Fenxian asked.

 

Ri Zu heard the whisper of movement, and stilled again, as the man’s hand caught the ceiling beam and he pulled himself up. Ri Zu could feel him. She could sense him, as his Qi tingled her body, passing over her.

 

Silent.

 

Invisible.

 

She heard the man move towards the wall—

 

Then drop down.

 

“Nothing. Though this building may have a pest infestation..”

 

“Wait, really? Don’t they have seals or something to keep them out? How can you not have those?”

 

Ri Zu caught the scent of the man who had just come from “guard duty”. She followed it.

 

Down.

 

Down, into a basement. Where the construction turned to heavy stone.

 

Down she slunk, in the shadows of the stairs. There was no noise, save for breathing coming from the bottom. Two sets. One heavier and one lighter.

 

Ri zu swallowed, as she finished the descent, peeking around the doorframe.

 

A man reclined on a seat, in front of a cage. Its front held no keyhole, instead, a piece of paper was pressed over the edge where it would open.

 

Ri Zu put it out of her mind.

 

Because there was Tigu. Laying on her front, with her arms clamped by steel and more papers behind her back.

 

Tigu’s face was bruised. Some blood had pooled out of her mouth, to stain the floor. The happy, cheerful grin was nowhere to be seen.

 

Ri Zu committed the man’s face to memory. She committed the taste and tang of Tigu’s blood to her mind.

 

The people who had done this to Tigu would pay. Cold icy fingers crawled up her spine. Places to stick unpleasant things. Visions of the man writhing with reaper fungus toxin, or vomiting out his stomach.

 

Medicine turned to poison. Some of the recipes for Chow Ji’s pills danced tantalizingly in her mind’s eye.

 

They were made out of people. But even that might have been too good for this scum.

 

Her fingers itched for the needle she had left behind and her Master’s final gift.

 

“If you’re ever in any trouble, mix these two together, and add ground riverwort.” Her Master had said. Her eyes were cold. Ri Zu sniffed the bottles, and her eyes widened.

 

‘Master this is—’

 

“Hong Family recipe.” Master said to her with a soft, sad smile. “Medicine is just poison, after all. It doesn’t have a name. But…it’s supposed to be bad. I’ve never used it before. And I pray that you don’t have to either.”

 

Yes. That was perfect. She could go back right now, get the needle, and strike like Tigu had taught her. A blow to the neck would spread the poison the fastest, and then—

 

There was a sudden sound from the top of the stairs.

 

Footsteps. Ri Zu spasmed, her eyes searching for a hiding place. No holes in the walls she could use, the sound was too close to make it to the ceiling—

 

She whipped around, and shoved her body into one of the stairs. It had a slight overhang. Just barely enough to shield her from view. Maybe. Possibly, if the person was a cultivator.

 

The stomping feet resolved themselves into a woman, who looked rather nervous.

 

She walked right past Ri Zu’s hiding spot, carrying a tray.

 

“Master, the meal you requested.” the woman said demurely, taking great pains to not look at where Tigu was laying.

 

The man grunted, and took his food.

 

Ri Zu’s beating heart slowed. She took a breath.

 

To go and attempt this alone was foolish. There were too many variables.

 

Ri Zu scurried back up the stairs.



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

 

Xiulan tapped her fingers impatiently, as she waited for Ri Zu to get back. She knew she wasn’t particularly quiet or stealthy, so to her surprise, Ri Zu had volunteered to see where Tigu was being kept.

 

It did not make the waiting any easier, however.

 

Rags and Loud Boy were laying side by side on bedrolls, as Xiulan watched over them.

 

The others still weren’t back. Not that she could blame them. They still thought there was a party going on.

 

Xiulan bit the nail on her thumb.

 

What could she do? What could she do?

 

Xiulan closed her eyes. Elders Yi and Shen were out, her father and Elder Zei would be with the other Elders of the Azure Hills. She could find them, and tell them—and then what?

 

The problem was blatantly obvious.

 

If they went for Tigu while they already had her, they would be opposing the Shrouded Mountain Sect.

 

They had no demands that they could make. They had no demands that they could enforce.

 

Zang Li was stronger than her father. Her father, who was at the Second Stage of the Profound realm and near the third.

 

Against Zang Li’s blazing Qi and the secrets of the Shrouded Mountain Sect? It would be like throwing a handful of grass into a bonfire.

 

There was little question that the Shrouded Mountain Sect would win even without the difference in power. Zang Lihad an entire retinue with him. An entire retinue that could be in the Profound Realm as well—at minimum they were either in the fourth or fifth stage of the Initiate’s realm, and that would be considered weak.

 

Even if every Verdant Blade Elder was here—the Shrouded Mountain Sect could duel the entirety of their sect and expect to emerge victorious.

 

She could possibly rally other sects to their cause, which was a large prospect in itself, would they dare be willing to impede the Shrouded Mountain Sect’s path? To make demands of a Young Master? For a sectless girl that held no value to them?

 

Even if they did succeed in delaying them, or managed to fight and win. If Zang Li, or any member of the Shrouded Mountain Sect, escaped, or even if they capitulated and handed over Tigu…they would tell their Elders of what happened here, especially if her own father got involved.

 

And then…it would be over. The Shrouded Mountain Sect would brook no insult, especially not one of that magnitude. Mere insects assaulting their majestic falcon? The very idea would have men in the Spiritual Realm striding down from the Shrouded Mountain in force.

 

What could she do? A man who had been insulted and defeated by Master Jin, now seeking revenge against him through his student and family.

 

What could she do?!

 

Xiulan took a breath, and then black form appeared in the window.

 

Ri Zu came back.

 

They’re packing-preparing to leave. They will be gone by morning.”

 

No time. No time. They had no time.

 

Xiulan bit her lip.

 

She had made a promise to Master Jin to protect them.

 

A year of his help and compassion. A year of friendship and joy.

 

Her sect would likely survive. She could throw herself at Master Jin’s feet and say that they couldn’t stand against them. He would be angry. He would be furious... And he would likely go against the Shrouded Mountain Sect alone.

 

He even said to value her life more. That she shouldn’t be so willing to run head first to her death.

 

But that was not the kind of woman she was. She would not sit back, and let others die for her.

 

But she didn’t know if she could drag her entire sect to ruin with her.

 

Xiulan let out a breath and opened her eyes. Out of time. They had to go before the Shrouded Mountain Sect left, and Master Jin wasn’t here.

 

“My plan is foolish and dangerous. I do not know the chances of success, but It is better than doing nothing. Ri Zu, will you help me?” She asked. The little rat nodded her head.

 

“Are you sure? Are you sure you can do this?” she asked.

 

Ri Zu glared at her. Her eyes were full of a kind of vicious malice that equaled Senior Sister’s.

 

“Ri Zu… will be brave.

 

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

 

The brothel girl had been easy to convince. It was her turn tonight, as another woman was called every night. A bit of coin in her purse, and she was on her way.

 

Xiulan approached the manor and its pristine, tasteful stone walls from an alley. She seemed to appear from nowhere. She had a pack on her back and a wide brimmed traveling hat for noble ladies upon her head. A pink silk strap kept it on her head as her swords floated gently behind her. She had changed out of her soiled clothes into another dress. It was a bit looser in the top than she normally wore it.

 

There were no guards outside the door. The street was empty.

 

Xiulan knocked on the gate.

 

She had to wait for but a moment for the gate to be opened by a member of the Shrouded Mountain Sect, looking annoyed.

 

“Who dares call upon us at this hou…r.” He trailed off as Xiulan tipped her hat up, leaning forward slightly and giving the man a warm smile.

 

His face flushed.

 

“Pray, forgive this one’s interruption, Expert of the Shrouded Mountain. This humble one calls upon your Young Master, as he requested earlier.”

 

“Ah—um—” the man coughed, composing himself. “Yes, the Young Master mentioned meeting somebody earlier. This way, please, miss.”

 

Xiulan bowed appropriately to him, lowering her head. The man flushed again.

 

He let her into the compound. His eyes kept flicking to her as she pushed her hat back, letting the lantern light shine and catch her hair and skin. His steps were lurching, as he lead her to the main house.

 

He turned completely, and she gave him another smile.

 

The man stared, before coughing and opening the door for her.

 

“Miss, forgive me, but before you meet the Young Master, you must surrender your weapons.” he stated as formally as he could.

 

Xiulan nodded agreeably. “A wise course of action. Please, by all means. Though I would request them back at a later date.

 

Xiulan handed over her swords. The man took them, placing them on a rack. Xiulan leaned on the counter as she watched him work. “Do you need to search me as well?” she asked stiltedly. She cursed internally. It hadn’t come out as flirty as she wanted it to, but the man didn’t seem to notice. He nearly dropped her swords, as his head whipped around to stare at her. She fixed her smile—before releasing he wasn’t staring at her face.

 

The man nearly dropped her weapons as his head whipped around to look at her.

 

“Ah… no, you are surely an honourable woman, to agree to our terms, Miss Cai.”

 

She let out a pleasant chuckle. “Ah, a man of your power and skill remembered this one’s name? My thanks, sir.”

 

The man looked away.

 

“This way, please.”

 

He led her through the manor. Through the intricately paneled halls that some said used to have defensive wards on them. The building was very, very old, but still in good repair. Only the best for honoured guests to the Azure Hills….. Xiulan glanced to the side as they passed a set of stairs that led downwards before reaching the door to the main room, her guide knocked upon it.

 

“Young Master. Miss Cai is here to see you.”

 

There was a noise of interest from the other side.

 

“Let her in.” Zang Li said, amusement clear in his voice.

 

The disciple of the Shrouded Mountain Sect opened the door for her. Zang Li was seated in the center of the room, reclining on silks and pillows. A woman sat behind him. Her eyes were tired and mournful looking, but she dutifully ran her fingers through Zang Li’s hair. His shirt was slightly open, exposing his sweat, and the room smelled of perfumes and food.

 

“Oh, what’s this? The Young Mistress of the Verdant Blade Sect, coming into my home on her lonesome, defying the decision of her Elders?” Zang Li asked. He laughed as he sat up straighter.

 

Xiulan bowed her head.

 

“Yes, Young Master. I do not believe they had my best interests in mind. I would take you up on your most generous offer. Traveling with you would be an honour beyond compare.”

 

The man who had let her in glanced at his smiling Young Master with a look of admiration.

 

He nodded to the man. “You can go, Huang. Same to you girl. I have some… business to attend to.”

 

“Of course, Young Master. Have a pleasant time.” Huang said, bowing low. The woman behind Zang Li stood. As she rose, Xiulan noticed a scar on her throat. She said not a word, merely bowing and exiting with Huang.

 

Zang Li leaned forwards as the doors closed and the footsteps receded.

 

“You’re certainly audacious, woman.” Zang Li said bluntly, his voice abruptly becoming less refined. “Really, what sort of honourable fool comes in here without her weapons? Let me guess, you’re here to beg for my forgiveness or ask for me to reconsider taking you on?”

 

“I have come to bargain for Rou Tigu.” Xiulan stated simply.

 

“I beg your pardon? Miss Cai, this Young Master has no idea what you’re talking about.”

 

“She is here.” Xiulan stated simply.

 

Zang Li leaned back in his seat, and sighed. “You seem certain she's here. Why, it’s insulting to suspect a member of the righteous Shrouded Mountain Sect of such a base deed like… kidnapping.”

 

Xiulan stared at the man. His smile widened and he started to chuckle.

 

“Kowtow before me and I may hear what you have to say.” He demanded.

 

Xiulan took a breath, got on her knees, and bowed her head. There was a noise of mild surprise from him.

 

“Cai Xiulan begs the Young Master of the Shrouded Mountain Sect for his benevolence and generosity.”

 

Zang Li laughed.

 

“Ah, that’s good! That’s good. That’s how things should be.”

 

In an instant, he was on his feet, and her hair was fisted in his hand. He dragged her up to stare him in the eyes.

 

“Unfortunately, this Young Master must decline your request.” He threw her into his seat, the mound of blankets and silks.

 

“After all, I would have to recall my best men. Why, they’re quite busy at the moment.”

 

Xiulan’s eyes widened.

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

 

Yinwei’s eyes cataloged the two below him.

 

A man and a woman, their lips pressed together. One of them had the target symbol on his back. The other was from the Misty Lake Sect. Unfortunate that there were bystanders, but not unanticipated. Hopefully they would not interfere.

 

His face was stone as he dropped down, his hands behind his back.

 

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

 

Ah, there the bastard was. Fenxian smiled as he saw the man through the window, laughing at something another person said. That was the symbol, right there.

 

Fengxian grinned as he slammed open the door. “Quite the party you’ve got here!” he thundered.

 

The entire room was silenced, as they stared at him, awe and shock on their faces. Ah, that never got old.

 

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

 

Zang Li smiled at her, shaking his head. “Really, what was your plan, anyway? Come in, seduce me, then hopefully make off with the girl? I’ll again say audacious, but foolish. Did you really think I would fall for that?”

 

“You seem like the kind of man who would.”

 

Zang Li laughed. “How rude! Though I will thank you for coming to see me. I had almost given up hope of being able to sample you before I had to leave. A pity, but the sacrifices we make for our goals.” He stroked her cheek. “It would have been a shame to lose such a prize.”

 

Xiulan glared at him.

 

“You court death. Master Jin will destroy you utterly for this insult.”

 

Zang Li’s face flashed with fury, his fiery Qi spiking. Xiulan flinched before he shrugged. “Oh, I’m sure he could. But he's not here right now, is he? And when he finds out—well. Elders don’t get involved in the struggles of the Younger Generation. But they would get involved when a Master attacks their home, wouldn’t they?”

 

Xiulan snarled and swung at him; he caught the blow and laughed. His other hand jumped up, fixing around her neck.

 

He overpowered her in an instant, pushing up against her.

 

“I do like them feisty… let's make a deal, you and I. For real now. Be a good girl for me and I’ll let you be the one to tell him. I’ll even spare your sect. Otherwise….”

 

The fire surged and Xiulan hissed as her skin grew hot.

 

“So tell me, do you dare oppose the Shrouded Mountain Sect?”

 

Xiulan’s breath caught. She looked away.

 

Zang Li smiled indulgently.

 

He pressed his lips to hers, claiming his victory.

 

Xiulan felt overwhelming revulsion.

 

And just ever so slightly victorious.

 

She looked above to the rafters and saw a slight figure cloaked in shadows.

 

Ri Zu was glaring at the man from the ceiling.

 

A tiny green blade, infused with Xiulan’s Qi and something far more insidious was strapped to her back. The broken, incomplete version of her sect’s technique, that every initiate struggled with. The small blade that was too fragile. Too weak, and above all, too small to actually accomplish anything. It would have faded to nothingness already… if Ri Zu hadn’t kept close enough for Xiulan to be able to maintain the tiny, almost unnoticeable strand of Qi that fed it, that allowed it to exist.

 

Ri Zu nodded and let the blade fall. She then turned around, leaving to begin the second phase.

 

Xiulan’s Qi plucked the tiny blade out of the air. It was coated with Ri Zu’s energy and Senior Sister’s poison, filled with her own Qi.

 

If Xiulan had not spent so much time practicing with knives, chopsticks, and other small things, it would never have had a prayer of working. She wouldn’t have had control fine enough, her skill and speed great enough now.

 

Her opponent was distracted. He was trying to deepen the kiss.

 

Xulan struck. The tiny, jade green blade penetrated the soft skin behind his ear.

 

Barely half-way in. A cut that wasn’t life threatening in the slightest.

 

Zang Li jerked backwards, his hand coming up even as her blade disassembled itself into Qi, dumping any remaining poison on it into the tiny wound.

 

The man’s eyes widened as he pulled back, shoving her away from him. His face twisted with surprise and fury. His Qi burnt her wrist where he was holding it.

 

“Poison?! You whore—”

 

Xiulan smashed her forehead into his nose, throwing him away from her.

 

Xiulan spat on the ground, getting his taste out of her mouth.

 

Fire exploded from the wall Zang Li had been thrown into. Xiulan moved, dodging past the flames. She smashed through the door and raced down the hallway, bursting back into the entrance. The disciple of the Shrouded Mountain Sect, Huang she recalled, looked dumbfounded as she hammered a knee into his gut and sent a palm into his nose. Her Jade Grass Blades leapt to her command, slashing open his back.

 

Xiulan grabbed the hammer on the desk and slammed it into the warning gong. Shouts of surprise and alarm echoed through the building.

 

Xiulan exploded out into the night, tumbling past eruptions of flame and the snarling crackling hiss of lightning.

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A note from Casualfarmer

And so I return. Had an alright break. Sorry to start the new year off on something this dark, but it had to be done. I can't imagine leaving you with this one right before the break.

 

The next chapter is a doozy. 10K, coming to you Wednesday! 

 

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


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