The night was beautiful and pure. Almost as beautiful and pure as the sound of clinking coins entering his money purse. It was a busy night as his customers drank and celebrated. The inn, his Jolly Fatty, was jam-packed with people.
Ming Mao was in his element. He poured drinks into cups and slid them down the bar into eager hands. He took orders and carefully labeled them down, checking them off when complete. Three of his employees cooked in the back, and delicately plated the food to be brought to the many hungry mouths. It was handed off to his wife or his daughter. They danced through the tables, setting them down in front of satisfied patrons. The silver flowed freely, as people shouted over the din to be heard.
The backroom door opened. His son marched in, carrying a bundle of forty ducks.
“That's the last of them, father.” he called, as he set about washing his hands again, ready to begin work.
“How did the sale go?” He asked. “They give you trouble this time?”
“No, sir. I did what you taught me. Not a coin more than we were willing to give.”
Ming Mao smiled proudly at his boy. He was doing well. The greatest and largest inn in Rolling Green would be in good hands. All the boy needed was a good woman and he would be set for life.
Ming Mao and his wife were very carefully making that match. His boy deserved only the best!
He smiled out at his domain. The forty tables on the floor and the forty rooms for weary travelers above.
It was nearly booked out.
Thank the Heavens for the Dueling Peaks Tournament. They were a week and a half off by foot from the place, but lots of people passed through on the way.
The end of the year was looking like it would be a party to surpass all parties.
Ming Mao finished pouring another drink, tipping the barrel to get the last of it out. He hummed to himself as he hefted the empty vessel and put it to the side, grabbing another from beneath the counter and replacing the empty one. A new spigot, a quick swing of a hammer, and he was ready to pour again. He nodded to some of his regulars who raised a toast in his direction.
Happy customers, happy coin purse.
His father had said that food and lodging in the same place was the best, and his wisdom was vindicated. What man wanted to walk so far for his meals when there was food right there?
And when there were no travelers? Well, every night there were people to offset the costs.
The door to the inn opened again, and Ming Mao turned to greet his new customer, rubbing his hands together. His new guest had to duck down slightly to get in through the door. He was a huge lad, with rippling muscles and freckles strewn across his face. Probably a farmhand from one of the villages nearby. Ming Mao paused. He also had a silver rabbit stuffed down his shirt and the most magnificent rooster on his shoulder.
Ming Mao frowned. The only animals allowed in his inn were the cats! The Magistrate Fluffy and his kin were friends of the Jolly Fatty, and did their business in designated areas. Other animals needed too much cleaning to be allowed.
But he did not speak up, for the rooster was strange. It wore a fox-fur vest and a silver necklace. The man held the door open and a monkey toddled in after him.
What? What sort of menagerie does this man have?
Ming Mao was so distracted he wasn’t able to approach the man and ask him politely to leave the animals outside, before the man came to the counter where Ming Mao was standing against the back wall, and before the kitchen.
Now that he was closer, Ming Mao realized he looked a bit worse for wear. He had bags under his eyes and his skin seemed a bit pale. He seemed exhausted or as if he was just recovering from a bout of illness. Ming Mao hoped he wasn’t still sick, but he wasn’t coughing or sneezing, so it was probably fine.
The farmhand with the animals opened his mouth to speak before his stomach growled. It was so loud Ming Mao heard it over the din of the restaurant.
The man flushed.
Ming Mao regained his wits and cleared his throat. “I must apologise, sir. The animals will have to be taken outside.”
The man paused and his brow furrowed as he processed what Ming Mao told him. He could practically see the man’s thoughts ponderously moving through his mind.
Was he a dullard or something?
The dullard frowned and turned to rummage in his pocket.
Ming Mao sighed. Just what was he going to bring out? A copper coin to ask him to let the beasts stay, or perhaps some ‘treasure’ that was a pile of junk?
The man put a jade token on the counter. A jade token, with the symbol of the Azure Jade Trading Company upon it.
“That change your mind?” He asked politely.
Ming Mao stared blankly at it. That couldn’t be real, could it?
“One moment, sir.” He picked up the token and walked into the back room to his office, where he kept his papers. Ming Mao rummaged around for a moment, taking out a document from the Azure Jade Trading Company. He compared the seal to the official one the Azure Jade Trading Company had given him.
It was a perfect match.
The man and his animals were swiftly seated.
“Terribly sorry for my rudeness, honoured customer.” Ming Mao simpered. He gestured wildly to his wife and daughter, who immediately approached him. “How may we serve you today?”
“What's the special today?” the man asked, his baggy eyes skimming over his wife and daughter without any thought before looking at Ming Mao again.
The honourable member of the Trading company, who was surely merely tired from a long day conducting business’, eyes drooped and he shook his head. The rabbit in his shirt was fully asleep.
“Roast Duck, on account of the tournament.” Ming Mao replied automatically, bowing his head. “My son will be preparing them personally.”
“Great… great. I’ll take three of those.” The man said, before frowning at the sleeping rabbit. “And... also a bunch of vegetables. Some roasted, some raw. You want anything special, Bi De, Huo Ten?”
The rooster and the monkey both shook their heads.
Ming Mao swallowed as his wife and daughter both stared in shock at the animals. The rooster bowed to them both.
They all beat a hasty retreat.
“Hao.” Ming Mao called for his son. “Only the best.” he commanded his son. “Look over each leaf individually if you have to. Nothing wilted or even funny shaped, do you hear me?”
His son nodded his head seriously.
Ming Mao kept an eye on the man as he went back to getting more drinks for his customers, but he just had his head in his hands and his eyes closed.
The rooster too seemed to be dozing while the small monkey was looking around excitedly, seated on the chair kicking its legs like a toddler.
Soon enough, the spread was finished. Ming Mao and his daughter brought the plates over. The man perked up at their approach and smiled tiredly at him. He fished the rabbit out of his shirt, the little beast squirming and rousing to wakefulness.
The ducks were placed in front of the man. He gestured at the animals for the rest of the plates.
He bowed back awkwardly to the rooster as it accepted his offering. Cultivator. This man was definitely a cultivator.
“Might this unworthy one know your name, honoured customer, and those of your er… companions?”
The man looked up in surprise, before pointing to himself.
“Rou Jin…” His finger swapped to the rest of the animals in order. ”Bi De, Yin, Huo Ten, Miantiao.”
The rooster bowed. The rabbit cocked her head to the side. The monkey waved. And then he tapped his armband—which was not an armband, but a snake, who lifted its head and gave him a nod.
Ming Mao bowed back.
Master Jin, his eyes still drooping, picked up an entire leg of duck. He stuck it in his mouth, bit down, and pulled it out.
All the flesh was gone in a single bite.
Ming Mao swallowed.
“Can... can I get you anything else, Master Jin?” He asked
The man startled mid-bite. His teeth sheared through the duck bone. He considered Ming Mao for a moment as he absently chewed.
“Yeah, actually. I’ve been on a pretty straight road to get to the tournament and I wasn’t sure of the exact time… Can you tell me when it ends?
Ming Mao grimaced at being the bearer of bad news.
“It ends today, honoured customer. In fact, we are just waiting for the announcement of the victor—”
The door to the inn burst open.
“Cai Xiulan defeated Rou Tigu! The match of the century!” The boy shouted, waving around a piece of paper. “Transcribed, from the transmission stones! News directly from Lord Bai Huizong!”
The customers of the inn cheered and eager patrons surged forward, ready to buy a copy.
Master Jin sighed and slumped. “Damn it.”
The rooster clucked forlornly, as if sad to hear the news and the man rubbed its head. “That's what we get for messing with ancient portents of doom. Three days. Of course it wasn’t three days…” His voice was light, but Ming Mao could hear the underlying strain. It wasn’t particularly well hidden.
The man sighed again. The monkey hooted and gestured at the man selling the copies.
Master Jin looked for a brief moment like he was going to stand himself, before collapsing back into his chair. He nodded at the monkey and tossed it a coin.
It eagerly got up and trundled over to the crowd, pushing his way through. The rest of the customers seemed amused at the creature, letting it pass. It held out its coin to the boy.
The rest of the patrons laughed as it received its copy and trundled back.
The monkey placed the paper in between the man and the rooster. Several of his customers were looking over curiously, but Ming Mao made a hand gesture.
Their eyes widened and they went back to minding their own business.
The rabbit, Yin, prodded at the snake, which slithered off his arm to sit with the rest of the animals.
Master Jin’s face was half a frown, half a smile as he read the paper. He closed his eyes and sighed.
A warm summer breeze flowed into the shop, as the door was blown open slightly. The night outside suddenly seemed even nicer. The perfect temperature. The stars even seemed slightly brighter.
The cultivator absently placed the last of the food into his mouth, then nodded his head and stood up.
“Thanks for the food.” he said, holding out an arm so the monkey could climb onto his back while the other beasts climbed upon him as well.
“You don't need a room for the night?” Min Mao asked.
“Nah. Got a bit of a run ahead of me. Thanks again for the food by the way. I’m feeling a lot better.”
Indeed, the odd cultivator did look invigorated from his meal.
“We may have missed the final match, but let's see if we can make it to that party.” he muttered as he exited the inn and broke into a loping jog.
Yingwen alighted gently on the ground behind the couple and waited for them to notice. It was the least he could do, allow them one final show of affection before separating them. It was a stroke of luck that the scouts had found them leaving the confines of the sect manor, and so he and Fenxian had been dispatched early.
The surroundings had been cataloged. A pond, in a pavilion. Remote. Out of the way. Surrounded by a high stone wall, and several turns that made it peaceful and private. Nearby the couple were the remains of a meal, and an open box, displaying one of the Qi furnaces the women, Liu Xianghua, had used to interesting effect.
Personally, Yingwen thought it an unacceptable crutch, but she was a cultivator lesser then the Shrouded Mountain Sect, so he could not begrudge her inferiority too much.
He waited a moment longer, hoping that they would stop, and he would not have to interrupt—
Liu Xainghua pulled open his quarry’s shirt and pressed him harder against the wall.
Yingwen cleared his throat politely before things progressed any further.
He stayed still as the woman jerked and threw a knife at him. It whistled past his cheek and stuck into the wall. A polite warning.
“Who dares?” the woman demanded, turning around. Her eyebrows scrunched into a truly furious frown. The man he was looking for simply looked dazed, an idiotic smile on his face.
“Forgive my interruption. This one is Zhou Yingwen, Disciple of the Shrouded Mountain Sect. I have business with the man accompanying you, Young Mistress. Would you be so kind as to hand him over?”
The furious woman paused, her posture becoming more cautious. The boy shook his head, his eyes widening before filling with anger.
“What sort of business?” the woman asked.
“I am afraid I cannot discuss this. No blood needs to be shed tonight if you do not defy the Shrouded Mountain Sect. He shall come with me and that shall be the end of it.”
The woman stared at Yingwen. She looked at the boy that she had been kissing. The boy bit his lip as his eyes stayed focused on Yingwen.
Liu Xianghua’s face went absolutely blank. She turned and kissed the boy on the cheek… then started marching off.
Yingwen raised his eyebrow as she stepped right past him with absolutely no emotion on her blank face. She passed within an arm's reach of him and did nothing. She marched behind him, she did not turn, and simply continued towards her belongings. She bent down and grabbed something from under the seat, then set about collecting her belongings.
“Wise decision.” He said, his gaze still on the boy, who swallowed.
How unfortunate to be abandoned.
“Will you be as wise?” He asked calmly. The boy’s eyes darted around, until they alighted on some bamboo poles, ones that had been left behind by construction workers. He dashed over and kicked one into the air, grabbing it and leveling it at Yingwen.
It wavered uncertainly in the boy’s hands.
Yingwen nodded his head and drew his sword.
“Unwise.” He declared.
Yingwen moved. The boy started in surprise and swung his makeshift staff. The Young Master desired him alive, so he would endeavor not to kill him. Yingwen raised his sword, intending to cut through the wood and follow it up with a strike to the stomach. Non-lethal, though rather painful.
His sword met bamboo. It bit into the wood, but to Yingwen’s surprise did not simply slide through it with ease. In fact, it got stuck. The impact jarred up Yingwen’s arm and he leapt backwards in shock pulling his sword free of the wood, landing near the pond.
He studied his opponent. Such a powerful and quick reinforcement was surprising but just that. Merely surprising. The boy held his ground, seeming to not know how to capitalize on the brief opening. Slow, and clearly unused to truly fighting—
There was a loud clank from behind and the sound of a cord being pulled. Something flew towards him.
Yingwen spun, slashing down and cutting the bundle of cloth that had been thrown at him in half.
The bulging bundle unfurled into a bedroll. One that had been freshly washed and perfumed, with nice blankets.
[Breath of Steam: Heron’s Beak]
He barely managed to get his sword in the way in time as a blow from behind him screamed for his throat. Xianghua smashed into his guard, his blade screeching with the sound of metal on metal.
The impact was equal to his brother disciples. Xianghua, unlike the boy, had no trouble trying to push the opening. They clashed three times with strikes that had both their arms tingling from the force of the blows.
Yingwen’s own blade cracked with lightning. Xianghua grimaced as their swords connected again, and staggered backwards.
“A powerful artifact for these hills, to be able to bridge the gap between realms.” he said conversationally. “But that was foolish.”
“This night was going as planned.” She said calmly and matter of factly. “Things were just getting good. You have ruined it.”
Yingwen glanced at the bedroll. Xong Gou Ren looked at it too and his face went crimson.
The steam billowed up and out of Xinaghua’s mouth, a fierce heron glaring at him. Yingwen sighed. His own Qi formed a snarling hound whose growl sounded like rolling thunder—
“Young Mistress!” a voice called out. “Young Mistress, I’m terribly sorry for interrupting, but there's an urgent message from Cai Xiulan!”
A servant rounded the corner. His eyes widened as he beheld the scene before him. He glanced nervously at their postures. “Uh—”
Yingwen considered the man. Xianghua kept her eyes on him. Yingwen nodded, allowing her to take the man’s report.
The woman grudgingly acknowledged his benevolence.
“I give you permission to read it.” Xianghua stated. Her eyes remained focused on Yingwen. The servant stared at the trio for a moment before fumbling with the seal for a second. He opened the letter and paled.
“The Shrouded Mountain Sect took Tigu, either stay in manor or get out of town. Attempting rescue.” He read out.
A sudden sound permeated the clearing of a far-off explosion and a roar of fury that sounded suspiciously like Yingwen’s Young Master’s voice.
A second, slightly closer shout of outrage sounded. Fenxian’s.
Yingwen’s left eye twitched.
He briefly debated disengaging, but he was committed now. He was a disciple of the Shrouded Mountain Sect. He could handle an Initiate and this woman with her contraption.
And… he didn’t think she would let him run, judging by the murderous aura coming off her. “So, the Shrouded Mountain Sect dares target the friends of Xianghua?” She demanded.
Yingwen wished it didn’t. The Young Master’s plan was foolhardy. Improper. But… orders were orders. He owed everything to the Shrouded Mountain Sect.
“Indeed it does.”
He raced forwards. His sword met Xianghua’s. The furnace on her back shrieked with Qi and steam.
“Gou, get out of here. I’ll handle this, then I will collect my reward later! I shall defeat him shortly.” Her words were full of insulting bravado even as she winced from the aftereffects of Yingwen’s lightning.
But the boy had frozen up.
“You took Tigu?” he asked, his voice a whisper.
His face twisted with rage. His very bones creaked, as he grabbed onto his bamboo stick.
“You hurt my friends?” he asked again. He took a step forward.
Yingwen’s eyes darted to the boy, and his stance adjusted as Gou Ren’s Qi manifested around him. Most Qi was a liquid, or a gas, swirling and ever changing.
This was like stones. The sturdy wall of a castle, compressed, and dense.
The boy who was not a threat suddenly became one.
Gou Ren’s Qi wrapped around him like armor. It spread as it covered his arms and the bamboo pole, churning and solidifying into a heavy armor of stone grey Qi.
The walls around them suddenly seemed firmer. Taller.
Until Gou Ren moved. With a roar, he launched himself at Yingwen. There was no real form or substance. A pure brawler, who simply wound up and tried to hit Yingwen as hard as he could.
Yingwen observed the energy gathering at the end of his staff. A cultivator in the Profound Realm was forced to dodge the attack of an Initiate.
He did not negligently deflect it. He did not try to block it.
He moved out of the way, because it was dangerous.
The ground shattered. Cracks and rents radiated out from the impact point, crawling up the nearby walls like he had manifested a small earthquake.
The pond water rushed in to fill the new hole. One of the walls crumbled.
Gou Ren’s eyes burned through the dust and the steam, locking on to Yingwen.
Fenxian smiled around the bar. Their laughter had died down and the entire pub was staring at him in shock.
“Ah, what's the matter? I know it's amazing for a Disciple of the Shrouded Mountain to grace your halls, but really, don’t be such bores!”
There was a sharp intake of breath. The owner of the pub ducked down behind his counter.
“I am Gen Fenxain, disciple of the Shrouded Mountain Sect. I am looking for a man wearing a shirt with that symbol upon it.” he said to the—
To the woman.
…he was looking for a man, wasn’t he? The woman was gaping at him from where her foot was still planted on the table and her arm outstretched. Her shirt was open a bit, like it didn’t entirely fit. Or as if she had just put it on.
She had a face that was rather fetching. Her eyes were sharp and narrow, with a hit of red color framing them. Almost like a fox. Their ancestral enemies were nothing if not attractive, the foul, tempting, soul-eating wenches. But this wasn’t the Howling Fangs. This was just a pretty woman.
“...was there a man wearing that shirt here?”
“I’m sorry, he just left.” The woman said demurely. Her voice was deep for a woman, but she had no bulge in her throat, and her shirt was open enough that he could see her… assets. A nice size, like a perfect Baozi. “I won this off him in a game of dice and he left to go get more money, and get his clothes back.”
Fenxian frowned heavily, glancing at the group sitting with the woman. They were members of the… Green Blade Sect? The one that the woman with the enormous chest was a part of? The little ants who scurried around her heels.
They all nodded their heads.
“Yeah, he left not too long ago.” another person from a nearby table chimed in. He had a shirt with a rising sun on it. “Went east, you should be able to catch up to him.”
Fenxian considered this.
“Or I could just wait here until he returns.” he stated, his eyes landing on the open seat near the fox-woman.
The pretty girl shrugged, sitting back down. “If he even comes back. The bastard owes me some money. Not a lot, but you know how some men get.” She waved her hand negligently.
The woman had a point. Fenxian sighed. Here he was hoping for a fight and the target wasn’t even here.
Well, this was boring.
“East, you said?” he demanded
There were several nods.
Fenxain turned around, frustrated, and left the bar.
The Young Master wanted his prize quickly, and Gen Fenxian never disappointed!
“What was that about?” An Ran asked curiously.
The woman wiped her hand over her face and down to her exposed cleavage. Her features became decidedly more masculine and the smooth flesh became dumplings. Yun Ren pulled the meatbun out of his shirt. The skit had been going so well too.
“I have no idea.” He muttered. “But I don’t think he was here for a good time. Thanks for the cover, Yang.” he said to the Young Master of the Framed Sun Sect.
“Anything for the Image Master.” Yang said cheerily. “Shrouded Mountain Sect bastards throwing their weight around…” he muttered
Yun Ren shook his head. There was something fishy about this. Alarm bells were blaring in his head. Somebody was looking for people with this kind of shirt? “...this doesn’t sit right with me. I’m going to go find Gou and Tigu.”
His brother first. Tigu could take care of herself.
He turned and headed towards the window.
The door to the pub opened again. The man, Fenxian, swaggered in, with what he probably assumed was a dashing smile on his face.
“Actually, pretty sister, you should come with me. This brother will ensure he returns your money—”
The smile fell off his face. The man gaped at Yun Ren, his finger pointing directly at him.
The streets suddenly shook with the peal of thunder.
Yun Ren clapped his hands together. A searing flash of light burst from his hands and sent the man recoiling. As Fennxian staggered blindly, Yun Ren dove out the window.
Fenxian roared with fury.
Xiulan had five people chasing her. Five disciples of the Shrouded Mountain Sect who were either at the fifth stage of the Initiate’s Realm, or into the Profound. From what Ri Zu had reported earlier and with the number of people present, it seemed like the dungeon guard had abandoned his post. Her swords spun around and fired backwards, providing distractions and forcing her opponents to block or dodge. Each blow goaded them to chase her all the more, if only to repay her for the cuts they received as she committed multiple swords to her assaults.
Through it all she never moved in a fully straight line. She used the roofs and alleyways of the empty manors to block their vision, and then had swords strike up from wherever she landed, harrying her pursuers.
Some of the blades were blasted out of the air with lightning, or were swept up in Zang Li’s blazing aura, getting too far away from her and igniting into their own funeral pyres.
Her opponents were fast. Zang Li was in the middle of the pack, but his breathing was hard and he seemed to be having trouble controlling his Qi. Ri Zu had done something to the poison Senior Sister had given her. She said it would act faster and be harder to remove— She risked a glance backwards. Zang Li threw something into his mouth and bit down on it in frustration, but that didn’t seem to provide any relief.
The fact that he was still after her was testament to his profound constitution. Ri Zu could paralyze Tigu with a few drops in a cup of tea. Whatever was going on in Zang Li’s body, it had slowed, but not stopped him.
“Cut her off!” She heard the shout from Zang Li ring out.
With a crack-boom of displaced air one man leapt forward like a bolt of lightning, his body transitioning to golden light—for all of twenty steps. His eyes widened as he stopped much earlier than he obviously meant to over an alley. His momentum carried him forward, but he started to drop. His foot caught on the roof and he went spiraling off, slamming into the ground. To his credit, he immediately kicked to his feet, scrambling to resume the chase.
“The air here is interfering with the propagation.” The man leapt up onto the roof nearby and yelled out. “I require adjustment.”
“This fucking province.” she heard the response from another.
Xiulan kicked up a roof tile and threw it backwards. It shattered, as one of her pursuers punched it out of the air.
She launched herself down into an old, abandoned set of stone buildings. It was a small village just outside the town, flipping past another bolt of lightning. It was an ancient warren of stone and collapsed buildings, underground passages and dead ends. Decrepit, crumbling, and abandoned.
The perfect spot to drag in and slow down her pursuers.
They were lost in their hunt, baying like hounds, and just rushing headlong after her. Exactly as she intended. They were running directly into an ambush.
Her plan was simple. Cause a big enough distraction, do enough injury to get people chasing her, and run.
Xiulan had spent three months in a brutal guerilla conflict with Sun Ken before she finally managed to corner him and force him into open battle.
She had learned those lessons well. It may have been dishonourable to ambush, and retreat, but Xiulan had little care for honour today.
Xuilan had no intention of dying or being taken.
She raced around the twists and turns, her swords flying off in a dizzying array of patterns. She sacrificed ten, feeling the drain on her Qi as Zang Li burned them all, but the brief moment they blocked her pursuers' vision was all she needed.
Xiulan reached into her pack, pulling out one of the bottles Ri Zu had given her. The rat had kept the last of Senior Sister’s family recipe, just in case. None of her other concoctions were as powerful or debilitating, but they did act quickly.
Ri Zu had given her three vials. She grabbed the first one she laid hands on and emptied it onto her sword.
Several of her pursuers went in the completely wrong direction, chasing her floating swords. Another was so close she could feel the crackle of lightning.
He turned the corner, and his eyes widened as he found her waiting for him.
Swords stabbed down from every direction, but unlike Huang he was not caught completely off guard. He was throwing his punch as soon as he rounded the corner.
[Fulmination of the Mountain]
Lightning struck as she parried with her sword, the familiar tingle racing up her arms and into her spine. Weaker than one of Wa Shi’s full power blasts, but still enough to sting. Xiulan’s muscles spasmed, but she managed to power through the strike and punched her opponent in the throat even as blades cut across his torso and the back of his legs.
The man howled in pain and backpedaled, raising his arms to guard—
But Xiulan was already disengaging. She made it around the corner before the grey-haired man regained his wits.
“Gah! Coward! She's over here!” He shouted, before snarling in pain.
Xiulan shot around another corner. She hid, watching the disciples from the shadows. Several more of her swords burst into flames, as Zang Li smashed through a wall.
Far enough away.
“Are you all right?” One of his comrades asked, slowing down to check on the wounded man.
She just had to keep them busy, keep them off center, she couldn’t stay still for long.
Xiulan slid through a small opening in a wall, and ran through an ancient, abandoned shop. Her father had taken her here, years ago, and it hadn’t changed much.
But she wasn’t perfect. She nearly ran into the next one, as they both ran down the same tunnel. He slammed into her, Xiulan’s swords getting the better of the exchange, even as he lit up with burning lightning. A feint for his neck forced another backpedal, and she fled down a side passage.
“Over there! Cut her off!”
Xiulan was gone again, running for the outskirts. Some of the walls around her shattered. Indiscriminate lighting techniques erupted the stone.
“Jump.” A simple command from Zang Li that was terse and clipped. Xiulan saw the Shrouded Mountain Sect disciples immediately obey. She poured on the speed. She couldn’t quite move as fast as Tigu—
[Descent of the Southern Star]
The streets filled with fire.
The ends of Xiulan’s hair caught alight as she raced ahead of the wall of flame coming towards her until she could outrun it no more. She jumped. The blastwave threw her out of the town, tumbling into the grass.
She landed on her back, wheezing as she hit the ground. Her eyes immediately sought out her enemies. Zang Li was down on one knee, shaking his head. Three of her pursuers had paused, surveying the damage.
The last, the one she had only managed to score a few cuts on, was racing towards her, his eyes full of murder. He raised his sword—before doubling over, clutching at his stomach.
He skidded to a halt, his eyes going wide and a whining groan escaped his lips.
He glared at her, tears in his eyes. “What did you do to me you—” He started screaming.
Just what did Ri Zu give her?
There was an unpleasant sound, and the man’s face flushed crimson in absolute mortification.
Oh. Senior Sister’s favourite. But when had they made it injectable?
Xiulan flipped to her feet and kicked him in the jaw. A couple more cuts to his legs and he was down and out.
Zang Li rose again. His eyes were locked onto her. He looked to start moving towards her again, when he paused, and glanced back at the town.
Realization shined in them. “The rest of you back to the manor.” He commanded.
Xiulan grimaced. She dumped the other two vials onto her swords, smearing the blades against each other.
Then she picked up her downed opponent. The rest of the disciples flinched, glaring at her.
Zang Li’s eyes narrowed. He took a breath, his eyes shining.
Zang Li disappeared in a peal of thunder. Xiulan jumped backwards dodging as his sword simply sheared through six of Xiulan’s blades, and a torrent of fire erupted out of his own.
Zang Li, to her surprise, grabbed her captive’s leg. Xiulan let him be dragged out of her grip. He threw the man backwards, and another disciple caught him.
Zang Li coughed, and shook his head. He stood up straighter as his face twisted. For a brief instant, his grey eyes flashed bloody red.
“Back to the town. Even poisoned, I’m more than enough here.”
His men nodded.
Xiulan swallowed, her eyes flicking to the men who nodded, racing back to town. Xiulan’s swords tried to pursue, but a wall of fire intercepted them.
“Now. No witnesses.”
Another jet of fire, this time looking slick and oily, burst out of the puncture wound Xiulan had made.
She took a deep breath and moved into her stance.
A warm summer breeze flowed through the grasslands.
It was dark.
Loud Boy screamed. A high, keening that set Tigu’s teeth on edge.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
The men had approached them. They had ordered Tigu to come with them.
Tigu refused and challenged them. It had gone well, at first. They were powerful opponents. Nearly as powerful as Bi De. She could tell they were pulling their punches, but it was a fun fight. They were like Wa Shi, electrified men, instead of electrified fishes. She wondered if they were gluttons too.
It had been fun, even though she was exhausted. It was fun, until Rags had made that awful choking sound. It had been fun, until Loud Boy screamed.
Tigu had stopped playing around after that. Her claws went for eyes. Her blades tried to gouge out arteries.
A vicious and brutal fight to the death.
A part of Tigu enjoyed that too. She had felt the joy. Her bloodthirst rising to the surface, teeth sharpening.
And then one of the men had held up Rags. Some part of her demanded that she disregard him, that he wasn’t worth it. That she was the only thing that mattered. That only her victory was important. An old, cold part of herself that didn’t care.
It disgusted her to feel that.
Tigu had frozen.
A fist had hammered into her jaw. She staggered. A second blow rocked her head to the side.
Then a third hit. Rags smiling and ruffling her hair. Rags, falling over, his eyes dull.
A fourth hit. Loud Boy’s cheeky grin. His screams and tears.
A fifth hit that spun her around completely.
‘I hated them.’ Her Master whispered. ‘I hated them all.’
She hadn’t known what he had meant back then. Fighting was so glorious. So fun.
But she had never really lost before, had she? She had never been the mouse.
At the sixth hit, there was only darkness. Darkness and the smell of Rags’ blood. Loud Boy’s scream the last thing she heard.
At the sixth hit, she understood.
‘Tigu!’ Loud Boy shouted, as her eyes went blurry. ‘Tigu!’
The screams haunted the darkness. Even now, she could hear them. ‘Tigu!’
‘Tigu! Tigu, wake-rouse yourself!’ A little voice demanded. Something foul managed to make itself through Tigu’s blood-clogged nose. Her face was sore and wet from the blood dribbling down her cheek.
She gagged and spat. A broken tooth clattered to the bottom of the cage.
“...Ri Zu?” she asked, blearily looking around. She was in a small stone room, bars just before her hazy vision. She tried to move her arms but they were stuck fast, clamped behind her.
‘Praise the sky-heavens.’ She heard the rat’s voice say with a relieved voice.
“...where am I?” Tigu groaned, getting her knees under her body and trying to move. The room was dark. She was sore all over and her arms would not move.
‘You were captured-taken. Ri Zu does not have time for a full explanation—’
There was a cracking, shattering peal of thunder. Tigu flinched.
‘We need to get out of here, and Ri Zu needs your help.’ the rat paused. ‘Tigu, Ri Zu needs you to transform. Ri Zu removed the Qi binders, but she can’t get the shackles off your arms. And the door to the cage isn’t opening.’
Her voice was as calm as it could be, but Tigu could hear the undercurrent of tension.
A spike of fear pierced Tigu’s gut. “I can’t. You know I can’t—”
‘You can. Ri Zu knows-thinks that Tigu can do this.’ Ri Zu encouraged
She gathered her Qi, just as Wa Shi had said.
Tigu tried. She really did. She pictured the form in her head. The little cat. The little failure. The beast that was merely tolerated, instead of loved. The form that she had so often boasted about, yet even now detested. Things were so much better for her as a human. She loved the feelings, the sensations, the camaraderie and above all the lack of urge to eat her little friend sitting on her back. The constant battle to not just pounce upon her.
Her Qi fizzled.
“I can’t!” Tigu snarled, panic overtaking her.
Ri Zu hopped from her back, where she was working on Tigu’s shackles. Her little paws touched Tigu’s face.
‘I know it scares you. I know you don’t want to turn back. But you must. Master Jin still loves you, whatever form you take,Master Meiling does too—and Ri Zu loves Tigu. Even if she was always a cat. You have changed. You are not that spiteful little beast. You are Tigu. Always Tigu.”
Tigu clenched her teeth as the hot tears dripped onto the cold metal.
‘For Xiulan’s sake. For the brothers’ sake…. For Loud Boy and Rags’ sake. You must.’
“I don’t… I couldn’t…. They got hurt. They died.” she whispered.
‘Rags and Loud Boy still draw breath. And this Ri Zu will not let them perish.’ Ri Zu insisted. ‘Just like Ri Zu will not give up on you. We will get out of here.’
Tigu bit her lip. The knowledge that they were still alive sent a warm surge through her. She cared about them. They were not of Fa Ram. but they were her friends. She needed to get out and help them. Help everybody—
Her Qi gathered and spluttered again. More hot tears splashed from her eyes. Her heart thundered in her chest.
There were voices outside. Men were shouting and the sounds of battle broke through to the prison.
Ri Zu tensed.
“You should go. They don’t know you’re here.” Tigu whispered.
Ri Zu flinched. Her eyes went wide. They rolled in her head, as the fear made the little rat twitch. Ri Zu shook her head. ‘Ri Zu is staying right here until Tigu is ready. She not leaving without you. What would Fa Ram do without its Young Mistress?’
Ri Zu’s honest words were painful and relieving in equal measure. The one who hated that body the most was fine with it. Tigu groaned. Her body shook with the strain.
She tried to visualize the cat.
It was still a part of her. It was still her. It was still something that she could be. Something that right now, she had to be.
She bit her lip.
Master’s warm hand on her head.
Loud Boy, Rags, Handsome Man, Blue Man with his cool drawings on his body.
Did it really matter what she was? Cat or human? Xiulan and everyone else were fighting for her. Even little Ri Zu, her eyes wide and terrified, was fighting for her.
The least she could do was return the favour.
Something in her chest cracked.
Lightning sparked around her body. Her heart seized in her chest.
Her Qi guttered and fizzled.
Yun Ren’s flight took him to the alleyways. The man had been distracted for a moment when a few people threw drinks at him. The Petals and Chen Yang had tried to intervene, but Yun Ren only saw the aftermath. There was a crack of lightning and several screams as the arsehole simply slammed his way through five other cultivators and went through the bar’s wall.
“Where are you, you bastard?!” the man, Fenxian, roared.
Yun Ren didn’t answer him. He simply pressed his hands over his body, dragging them along his face and his clothes, changing the colours.
His skin lightened. He undid his ponytail. It was a simple colour. A thin skin, like his images, with his body as the canvas. A joke, made to make people laugh.
The man was too fast. He couldn’t run. What should he—
Yun Ren’s sword rattled.
‘Left alleyway. Poor visibility from above.’
Yun Ren startled at the quiet voice, but obeyed it, darting into the alleyway. He picked up a discarded bottle and slumped into an alleyway like he was a passed out drunk.
His heart thunderd in his chest as there was a rustle of air. The man passed overhead.
“You can't have gone far, damn it, you worthless fox bastard!”
There was another crack of thunder, followed by several screams.
What could he do? What could he do? His thoughts whirled. His Qi churned.
Something in his pouch started to rattle, followed by a certain familiar warmth as his bag suddenly expanded—
And a tiny white fox head poked out.
“Looks like you’re in a spot of trouble, nephew.” the familiar face declared.
Yun Ren stared at it, ghostly and like it was barely here. He could see through it to the cracked gemstone that he had gotten from—
“In the flesh, or I suppose in spirit.’” The fox said, tittering to himself. “Well, part of him. I couldn’t leave you all on your lonesome—especially when I felt this foul lightning.” the little beast stated primly.
Yun Ren’s sword rattled again.
“Of course, dear, you’re here too.” The fox said indulgently. He glanced up as Fenxain shot overhead again. “That man is not going to stop until he finds you.”
Yun Ren froze as there was another pass of wind and a tingling feeling.
“What the fuck can I do against that?!” he hissed.
The little beast grinned. Its face stretched into a cruel, toothy vulpine smile.
“Why, fight him of course. My dear friend's sword chose you. Against the Den Stealers, just like old times!”
A rattle came from Yun Ren’s belt.
The voice again.
Yun Ren’s hand moved on its own. There was a scraping sound as he withdrew the sword Yao Che had made for him. Simple steel bled into a beautiful white blade, as the illusion on it melted away. The darkness of the night seemed to ebb, like the dawn was coming.
Summer’s Sky the inscription on the blade read.
“I’ll handle the defense. If you please, my dear?” The fox asked.
‘Summer’s Sky greets the Eighth Master.’ A voice in his head whispered. ‘Request. After battle, tea and show images.’
Yun Ren stared blankly at the sword. Yun Ren was entirely in over his head. He had a magic, ancient talking sword and a fox spirit had crawled up onto his shoulder. For one hysterical moment, Yun Ren remembered that time Jin had ranted about magical girls and talking dolls.
…Irrationally, Yun Ren had the sudden image of himself in a dress. He almost laughed. It would have been so amazing, if he wasn’t terrified.
Then, there were more people shouting. Cracks of thunder to the west, and there was a blazing fire staining the sky orange.
“Wait, if you swapped out my sword, and you can talk, why didn't you say anything beforehand? I used you to chop wood and as a skewer for meat!”
‘Interesting experience. Approval.’
He felt Fenxian approaching again as he dropped his disguise.
Yun Ren stood up and swallowed thickly. His legs wobbled.
Welp, first time I’ve ever used a sword to actually fight somebody.
Nezan’s eyes glowed.
“There you are!” Fenxian roared as he slammed into the alley.
Facing the wrong direction.
Yun Ren reflexively stuck him in the ass.
The man shrieked and turned, his blade aiming for Yun Ren’s head even as he swung blindly.
‘Thunderblade Sword Arts. Effective, especially against other sword wielders. Ineffective against Summer’s Sky. Phoenix Guard high, deflect.’
“What the fuck is a Phoenix Guard?!” Yun Ren yowled as he dove aside instead. Fexian’s eyes were hazy as he continued to strike at empty air. Nezan grunted.
The sword rattled.
‘Ah. Eighth Wielder's abilities are low. Challenging. Interesting. Approval.’
Yun Ren swore.
‘Against the wall. Against the wall. Hurry-quick.’ Ri Zu instructed her companion. Her eyes were full of worry as they finished getting out of the compound.
Tigu was hyperventilating. Her eyes were wild and rolling, she was stumbling and staggering on her four legs. She wasn’t used to moving like that anymore.
The cat wretched. Ri Zu barely recognized Tigu in this form. She was different. Her fur was a brighter orange. Her stripes were a deeper black. Like a little tiger, even more than she once was.
She could hear the men of the Shrouded Mountain Sect entering the building. And they immediately started swearing at the empty cage. The empty unopened cage.
‘Tigu. Stay with Ri Zu, Tigu.’ the rat begged. Tigu grimaced. She took a deep breath. Some of her shakes settled.
“Go out. Search the town, and if you can, aid in our brother’s fights!” one shouted.
Ri Zu kept her hands on the shuddering cat murmuring encouragement as she tried to keep her moving.
The cat slumped against her side. There was a pop and a young woman took her place. The smell of half eaten food filled the alley as she vomited.
Ri Zu sighed in relief.
Tigu looked frantically at her hands, before she let out a shaky breath. She clenched them into fists.
‘..are you fine to fight?’ Ri Zu asked.
Tigu nodded her head.
“They’re going for Gou Ren and Yun Ren. Or The Blade of Grass.” her voice was slightly deeper. More guttural. Filled with fury. “More reach like this. More power.”
She gagged again, and spat to the side.
She held out a hand for Ri Zu.
The rat clambered on, as Tigu bright her up to her face. Their foreheads touched.
Tigu transferred Ri Zu to her shoulder. To her normal spot, under her shirt.
Tigu’s Qi Blades formed. Her teeth sharpened into points. The marks on her cheeks spiked, as they turned more besital and savage.
Tie Delun of the Hermetic Iron Sect was bored. He had to pack away most of his sect's forging gear and so he had missed the opportunity to ask Miss Rou to accompany him on a walk. Loud Boy and Rags had beaten him to it.
Unfortunate. He was leaving in the morning so he would have liked to see her one last time. Or at least hear her call him ‘handsome man’ again.
So instead, he was walking by himself. Away from the sounds of fighting. He had no desire to engage in whatever was going on. After everybody was freed from tournament restrictions, things tended to get a bit out of hand, and it looked like this year was especially bad.
Which was a shame. Things had seemed so good for a while.
There was a shout and a peal of thunder close by. His eyes widened as an orange missile hurtled towards him
He caught it out of the air.
“Tigu?” he asked. She was smoking and injured, but even as he looked at her some of those cuts healed. His eyes widened at the feel of her energy. Tigu was looking back at him, with pain in her eyes.
“Miss Rou what’s—”
Three pursuers slammed down in front of him.
They were all of the Shrouded Mountain Sect.
All of them were sporting blade wounds. One smelled rather foul, his face a crimson rictus of rage.
“Hand her over, in the name of the Shrouded Mountain Sect.”
Tie Delun Looked down as Tigu staggered to her feet. She gave him a shaky little smile.
“You should go.” She whispered.
Tie Delun saw the pain in her eyes.
He had always had a temper. He knew that much. It was often a struggle to control.
But right now, as Tigu stood in defiance against the Shrouded Mountain Sect… he let it flow.
He would not let her harm go unanswered.
[Hermetic Iron Body]
A hammer was drawn.
Yingwen’s face was stretched into a grimace. With her engine, Liu Xainghua was the near equal of himself. It would have been no contest if they were not in the Azure Hills. But he had spent his time drinking, rather than training, trying to forget the draining feeling on his Qi.
His Thunderous Steps were unavailable to him.
Against just her, he would have been able to prevail, even without his technique.
But the boy, Gou Ren, was proving intensely irritating. He was wild and unrestrained, with enormous wide, swinging hits that would have gotten him killed if his flesh wasn’t harder than iron.
The times Yingwen blade connected with him had little effect. It was like hitting an unbreakable wall. The boy didn’t even budge while his feet were planted upon the earth, and he lashed out with his makeshift staff.
Each hit was wide in its impact, shattering the stone around him, shaking the foundations of the street.
But Yingwen could see he was tiring. Slowly. He was moving even slower than before, the rage in his eyes still burned, but his strength was dimming.
Yet Yingwen was still being forced back.
Thankfully it was not all in his opponents’ favour. Liu Xainghua had an enormous number of electrical burns sliding up her arms, and her furnace was starting to cough and splutter.
Yingwen leapt backwards. A measured fighting retreat to tire them out would suffice. He could feel the discharges of his fellow disciples nearby.
His sword lashed out again as Liu Xianghua closed the distance, scoring a shallow cut that made her flinch as electricity poured into her body. He followed it with a strike to the stomach but Gou Ren was there attempting a full body tackle.
He clicked his tongue and leapt backwards into another plaza.
One that was nearly full of members from the sects of the Aure Hills. Bystanders who had gravitated towards this fight.
Yingwen sighed, he saw his sectmates fighting an escaped Rou Tigu. She and another man were staggering under the assault. Barely able to keep their arms up.
Yingwen landed. His brother disciples nodded at his presence, as they formed a defensive circle.
Xianghua landed straight after him before pausing. Her eyes flicked to the number of Shrouded Mountain Sect disciples.
All of his brothers had wounds upon them, but even now, victory could be claimed. Rou Tigu was on her knees, and the other man slumped completely, his armour shattered and smoking.
Yingwen paused considering the predicament the Young Master had landed them in. He glanced around at the crowd of witnesses. Perhaps he would be able to salvage the situation.
“Enough!” Yingwen shouted loudly to everyone. “Do not make this rebellion worse on yourselves. Cease attacking us and we shall be generous, and let you live.”
The crowd was muttering. Murmuring. ‘They attacked the Shrouded Mountain?’
Both Gou Ren and Xianghua were hesitating. Good. Good, this was working.
Then, there was a shout from the top of a building. It was a raw and powerful voice.
“Rou Tigu was taken for no reason by the Shrouded Mountain Sect! When Xiulan went to bargain for her safety, they attacked her too!” every eye turned towards him. “They broke my cultivation and nearly killed Rags! These honourless bastards are nothing but scum!”
For a brief moment, there was silence.
Guo Daxian, the Young Master of the Grand Ravine Sect, stepped forward. He pulled his weapon from around his arm, the vicious blade attached to a rope. Several more stepped forwards, including a couple of scorched looking members of the Verdant Blade Sect.
”Are you all going to assault these members of the Shrouded Mountain Sect?” Yingwen asked.
Guo Daxian spat to the side and smiled at them.
“It's just a little scuffle between disciples, isn’t it?” he asked blandly. “Or did something worse happen?”
Yingwen swore as a rope dart sliced towards him.
There was pandemonium on the streets. Walls crumbled and thunder resounded.
Steam and Qi screamed.
Yet the Elders of the Azure Hills saw little of this, cooped up inside the vast halls of the Dueling Peaks.
It had started earlier that night.
Ancient Mechanisms whirred to life. Gold flashed across every crystal, a stringing web that connected the entire mountain.
The barriers hummed and shimmered, as every rune in the Earthly Arena turned burned gold.
“What the hells is going on?” Guo Daxian the Elder asked.
“You’re really bad at this.” Nezan stated as Yun Ren ducked again.
His opponent was beguiled in illusions, lashing out randomly… and Yun Ren still couldn’t finish it.
“I’m an artist, not a fighter!” he yelped back. Dodging another wild swipe from the angry cultivator.
It was... well, it was a bit embarrassing. Chen Yang, who had caught up to them, had tried to help again, but he had gotten electrocuted by an omnidirectional blast.
Yun Ren was barely in the fight himself. Only the fact that any lightning that headed towards him was instead sucked up by Summer’s Sky and thrown back had kept him standing.
And for some reason.. He felt pretty fine. His panic had long since died down, and he felt… warm. Kinda like he was safe, despite the fact that he was facing down a massive brute who was shrugging off the fact he had been stabbed multiple times.
Finally, Fenxian paused. He lifted a hand to his head.
There was a crackle of lightning that suffused his hand and then he touched his temple
He had electrocuted himself. Yun Ren swallowed. His opponent’s eyes cleared.
“Fox.” his voice boomed, he was completely focused on Yun Ren.
He moved too fast to see. Too fast to block.
Yun Ren braced himself for the devastating hit to come.
A large, tanned hand plucked Fexian out of the air.
Fire roared. Grass burned, only for a fresh set to take their place.
The woman was annoyingly persistent. The sheer amount of Qi she was throwing around was honestly enviable. He had no idea how she hadn’t collapsed from exhaustion.
Each swing of his sword ignited ten or more of her blades. Her own sect treasures were cracking and pieces of green jade were flaking off. Her clothes had mostly burned off, barely sparing her modesty. Her body was littered with cauterized wounds.
Each breath sent a new wave of swords at him, trying their hardest to cut him down.
But she had reached her limit.
And Lu Ban had surpassed his.
Oil, Fire, and Blood purged whatever poison she had afflicted him with. His body was adapting. Was recognising the subtle, insidious Qi that kept it lingering, damaging his body and spirit.
In a few more moments, he would be free of it.
But now… now it was time to end it. His opponent had been clever with her initial trap. But she was not the only one who could perform such maneuvers. She hadn’t noticed the flames carving a formation.
[Phoenix Hell Inferno]
She could not fly anymore. The flames burned white, cutting off all retreat. The only open path was through Lu Ban himself.
There was delicious fear reflected in her blue eyes.
But she stood defiant.
Lu Ban hated her.
He rose up into the air. A ball of flame formed the size of a pea, so hot it burned white.
“I would have liked to keep you alive, but that will not be happening.” His voice was conversational. His blood red eyes intent.
There would be nothing left of this woman. Not even ashes would be left for her crimes.
The ball of heat in his hand pulsed.
[Descent of the Southern Star]
The orb dropped.
Cai Xiulan stared her death in the eyes.
[The Aegis of the Full Moon]
A silver shield sprung up between his target and the descending orb. It was a full, perfect circle of celestial light whose brilliance blinded him for a moment.
His soul shuddered as his flames bore down upon the face of the moon. The hellish heat was enough to scorch its surface. To bun the blinding light, and darken it for a moment. But it did not break. The flames dissipated under the cold, lonely light of the moon.
The smoke cleared.
Standing before Cai Xiulan was a chicken. Its feathers shone a brilliant red. Its tail, a perfect jade green. Its fox fur vest was absurd.
Lu Ban stared blankly at the creature, unsure if the heavens were playing a trick on him.
“It seems you have had fun playing with my junior.” The beast said in a deep, smooth voice. “But she has had enough for one day. Do you mind trading pointers with me?”
Lu Ban gaped at the Spirit Beast.
“You stand before Fa Bi De, First Disciple Of Fa Ram.” The rooster continued, before stroking his wattles with a wing. “Student of Rou Jin.”
Lu Ban’s hand spasmed. The one that had been broken.
A warm summer wind caressed his face, and made shivers crawl their way down his spine.
He looked at the ground. At a field of ash.
Little shoots of plants were poking out of the devastation.