Yingwen sucked in a deep breath as he deflected three rapid spear thrusts, and struck his opponent in the arm. The other man snarled in pain and retreated. His fellows struck back. The plaza was shrouded in smoke and covered in scorch marks. There was blood splattered across the ground. The cultivators of the Azure Hills, once roused to righteous anger, were finally starting to falter.
The difference in power was telling. Even surrounded and outnumbered, the quality of the Shrouded Mountain was beyond what the Azure Hills could muster. The Qi-less air, interfering with their techniques, had been steadily overcome. As the Disciples of the Shrouded Mountain Sect battled, they refined their techniques and perfected their breathing. It almost seemed like the ambient Qi was rising the longer they fought, making their abilities easier to control, brought in on a gentle summer breeze.
That was not to say their side were unscathed. Two of five were on their knees and had been pulled into the defensive circle. His brother-disciples were wounded and suffering, but the number of wounds and damage that they had inflicted was disproportionate.
Still, they were on the knife's edge. They would be overwhelmed if things did not change. Yingwen caught his breath and glared at the disciples surrounding him. Those of the Azure Hills that remained standing prowled like wolves, searching for any weakness. Their numbers had been cut drastically by the repeated assaults. The wounds had largely been ones aimed to cripple though. It seemed that even the Azure Hills knew better than to butcher an entire retinue from the Shrouded Mountain Sect.
Everyone was flagging. They could possibly yet pull victory, or what seemed more likely escape this encirclement and flee. Shameful, absolutely shameful.
Yingwen mentally cursed his Young Master. Elder Chongyun and Elder Shenhe were right in their suspicions of the Young Master. There would be a reckoning when they got back to the sect.
There was a small commotion.
Liu Xianghua had refilled her engine. It was cool again, its vents ready for another bout. Xong Gou Ren staggered back to his feet from where he had been slumped against the wall.
Yingwen grimaced. It was time to take a gamble. There was no more lightning from Fenxian. His section had gone silent, so either he was returning to the manor with his quarry or—
It did not bear thinking about.
“Great Heavenly Breakthrough Formation.” Yingwen commanded. His standing brother disciples nodded, their eyes hard and laced with exhaustion. “I will retrieve Fenxian. The rest of you retreat to a more defensible location.” Their bodies flowed immediately into their positions, ready for the signal.
The disciples of the Shrouded Mountain readied themselves, their faces twisted into snarls. The air became charged with their thunderous Qi, blazing like miniature stars. The wrath of the Heavens made manifest. The disparate Qi signatures of the Azure Hills rose to meet them, every element and ability twisting, the ants trying to tackle the Heavens. He could feel Rou Tigu’s eyes especially, the burning yellow slits full of wrath—
The summer wind blew.
“Enough.” A voice said. In truth, it was a command. A command that cut through the ranks of the disciples.
Techniques spluttered and died. Cultivators flinched. Yingwen lost control of his lightning, because all of a sudden there was a mountain standing in the square.
It had been invisible. It hadn’t been there. Yet all this time, he had been in its shadow—
Rou Tigu’s, ready to strike, seemed to collapse in on herself. Her slitted eyes faded back to something more human. Her firm composure melted.
And a bright, hopeful smile spread across her face.
“Master?” she whispered.
“Jin.” His original target, Gou Ren said, collapsing onto Xianghua with relief. The woman’s face went blank as she stared at him with concern.
A hand landed on Tigu’s head. Large and tanned, it ruffled gently through orange hair. Tears gathered in the corners of Tigu’s eyes as she looked up at the person touching her.
He was an unassuming man. Tall as Fenxian. He wore rough, simple clothes that were a copy of Rou Tigu’s own. Tanned, freckled skin, the same tone as Tigu’s. A slight familial resemblance.
He looked like a farm-hand.
Save for the fact that Fenxian was carried upon his shoulder. There was another one of the Young Master’s targets with the newcomer, but Yingwen’s attention was entirely consumed by the man before him.
He could not properly feel the man’s power. He could only deduce that it was vast, impossibly vast. It extended past his senses, seeming to become one with the very mountains around them.
The man’s eyes softened as he looked upon Rou Tigu. She threw herself forwards, latching onto his side. He patted her back as he nodded his head at Xong Gou Ren.
“It's gonna be okay now.” He whispered to her. The small woman nodded her head and rubbed at her eyes, stepping back with a tired smile on her face.
The man looked at her body. At the bruises and the blood. His face became stone, and he looked back up. His eyes focused directly on Yingwen.
It was like the Dueling Peaks had decided to lean in from their positions. That the entire mountain was directly over his head, looking down upon him, and finding him wanting.
The blood drained from Yingwen’s face. One of his brother disciples slammed down to his knees, sweat pouring down his face.
The man took a step towards them.
Yingwen swallowed and stepped back.
The man took another, closing the distance.
Yingwen tried to take another step, and then realised he couldn’t lift his feet. It was as if there was a great weight upon his shoulders.
Each step from this man-shaped mountain was quiet, yet in the sudden silence, it was an avalanche approaching their defensive formation.
A defensive formation that suddenly felt like it provided no defense at all. Instead, the Shrouded Mountain Sect had all conveniently grouped up, so this man could squish all of them like insects without having to expend more energy.
And then he was in front of Yingwen. He was merely head and shoulders taller, yet it felt like if Yingwen wished to look at the man’s face, he would have to crane his neck to look up at the Heavens.
He was not so foolish. He kept his head lowered deferentially.
“This one greets the Great Expert. This one is Zhou Yingwen.” He said instead, politely greeting his senior first.
The man tossed Fenxian into their circle, apathy filling the movement. The large disciple lay unmoving, but alive. That he was not dead yet was either a good sign…. Or they were all about to be brutally tortured for several years before being allowed to perish. The latter was unfortunately more likely.
“You may call me Rou,” the powerful expert stated.
Rou. Rou Tigu. Yingwen closed his eyes. Family. This powerful Expert’s daughter, most likely. They were all going to die this night, weren’t they?
“You tried to take Tigu’er.” Expert Rou said. His voice was calm. Dangerously so. “You hurt Gou Ren and Yun Ren too.”
It was a statement. One laced with fury. It left no space for a lie, if he tried he would be destroyed utterly. Experts could tell if one told falsehood in their presence.
“Yes, Great Expert.” He confirmed it.
Expert Rou looked at him, considered him, and sighed. He appeared fed up, tired, and confused.
“Why?” he demanded. “Did you even have a reason?”
Yingwen glanced up. His mind worked. Loyalty warred with a desire to live. A desire to report back to the Elders of just how far this had spiraled out of control. The Shrouded Mountain Sect needed to know of this shame and this reckless foolishness now more than ever.
He made his choice.
Bowing deeply and showing supplication, Yingwen laid down the truth. “Upon the orders of our Young Master. He claimed Rou Tigu greatly shamed our Sect and that she must be punished. I objected to this course of action, yet he was insistent.”
“Just following orders, huh?” He asked. The pressure increased. Yingwen didn’t know why that was the wrong thing to have said. Following the orders of one’s master was a high virtue. But the man before him clearly did not think much of his response. “And who is your 'Young Master?'”
“Zang Li.” Yingwen replied. The pressure, for a brief moment, released.
“Zang Li?” Expert Rou asked, his fury turning to confusion. “Zang Li I know that name—The imposter?”
Yingwen’s eyes widened. “Imposter?” he ventured, a new avenue of… not victory, but something that could salvage the situation.
Expert Rou glared at him. “I encountered him attempting to rape a friend. I objected to this, defeated him, and was of the opinion that the Shrouded Mountain Sect could not have had a man that weak and… wicked within their ranks. I thought the Shrouded Mountain Sect would take care of him. It seems I was mistaken.”
The entire world seemed to tense. Yingwen’s knees bent from the pressure.
Yingwen’s mind worked. Zang Li had been defeated in the Azure Hills. He claimed the attack had come out of nowhere. All thought this was the case. But… to hear it from this man, that Zang Li had been defeated for assaulting an ally, and that he had trusted the Shrouded Mountain Sect to take care of things…
It was cowardly what Yingwen was about to do. Most scrolls said he should stand by his Young Master until the end.
…But if he did that, he would be dragging the Shrouded Mountain Sect into open conflict with this expert. There would be resources pushed into the Azure Hills. There was no doubt as to the outcome. The Shrouded Mountain Sect would win and crush the petty sects here. It would not even require too many resources if an Elder was deployed. A single cultivator in the Earth Realm could defeat every cultivator here single handedly.
Their reputation would certainly suffer. It would be known that the Shrouded Mountain Sect was insulted by the Azure Hills. That they had done something so unforgivable even the weak sects had no choice but to object to them.
The Azure Hills were not the problem, but the reaction from the other sects, the ones that mattered, would.
“An imposter? You are likely correct, Great Expert.” Yingwen stated, having weighed both paths and discarding the Young Master. Expert Rou froze, unsure of Yingwen’s angle. “A member of the righteous Shrouded Mountain Sect, doing these things? Unlikely. A foul Demon, or worse, a Fox, a wicked beast, is attempting to bring the Shrouded Mountain Sect into conflict with an expert of your caliber. His technique is powerful and managed to deceive our eyes, but you have shown us the path.” Yingwen lowered his voice. “The Elders were suspicious and bid me keep an eye upon him. It seems their suspicions were correct.”
Expert Rou’s frown deepened. “And this fight?”
“As Guo Daxian said, It was merely a drunken brawl.” He confirmed, before pitching his voice slightly louder, so others could listen in. “Should we be destroyed, the Shrouded Mountain Sect shall come looking for us. Especially with your involvement, it would no longer be a battle between disciples. The Shrouded Mountain Sect was not challenged today.” A master had gotten involved now. Things had escalated, but... perhaps, Yingwen could still save his juniors.
“Just a drunken brawl?” Rou turned to the other members of the Azure Hills, waiting for him to finish.
Several of them looked nervous at the prospect of this escalating.
Tigu’s face twisted. She looked like she wanted to say something, but Guo Daxian’s hand landed on her shoulder.
“Yes, Sir. Just a drunken brawl,” the foreign Young Master said, not looking at Expert Rou but glaring at Yingwen.
The girl looked outraged. “He crippled Loud Boy—”
“And if the Shrouded Mountain Sect comes here people are going to get a lot more than hurt.” Daxian muttered, his voice pitching lower.
Tigu’s eyes shot up to a roof, where the Loud Boy was. He looked around at the skortched and destroyed square. He grimaced and nodded to Tigu, agreeing with Daxian. The Young Mistress scowled, crossing her arms.
“As you can see, Great Expert,” Yingwen bowed once more, not quite begging, “ there was no quarrel between the Shrouded Mountain Sect here and the… esteemed experts of the Azure Hills.”
Expert Rou frowned, but his attention was not on them. Instead, it was upon a silvery projection, a rooster, beckoning him.
The man shook his head.
“I don’t like this outcome. But I will accept it for now. Go back to your manor. We’ll talk more in the morning,” he commanded.
“We thank you for your consideration, Great Expert.” Yingwen stated, bowing for a third time that night.
But the man was already gone.
Standing up straight, Yingwen gazed warily at his once-enemies, but they made no move to stop him from leaving.
“Should we make a break for it?” One of his juniors asked nervously.
“So that we may die tired?” Yingwen asked. “We shall await him at the mansion, and we may be able to escape from this with our lives.”
Why were the Heavens like this? Why did they give him things, only to snatch them away at the last moment? For every lucky break, he received a heaping dose of misfortune.
Lu Ban’s sword rapidly parried the silver blades of moonlight. He had learned early to not get hit by them
It wasn’t fair.
He clenched and unclenched his fist. A small nick on his arm was glowing silver, with luminescent veins trailing up his arm. The bird’s Qi acted like poison. It burned. It disrupted his Qi, but it still wasn’t enough.
His parents, his master, every time things started to get better, this happened.
Poisoned twice over. Antidotes not working properly. Attacked by two Profound level cultivators.
A jade sword, still on fire, stabbed into his back.
He reached deep and burned some of his Vital Qi, some of his life. Years would be lost.
But it didn’t matter. All that mattered was victory.
Oil and blood erupted in a tide as his opponents recoiled.
Nothing was enough. Nothing could stop him. Nothing could keep him suppressed. He was Lu Ban.
And he would rise to the heavens of this worthless world.
[Blood Arts: Strength of the Feast]
Both Cai Xiulan and the rooster screamed as the wounds on their bodies slashed open further and their blood started to flow towards Lu Ban. The grass around him withered.
He felt the flesh of his face melt slightly as his Blood Art interfered with the body’s natural lightning alignment. Something he would have to fix later. He just needed a bit more time. The shouting had stopped from the square. He had to move quickly.
Lu Ban’s Qi coalesced.
And his enemy’s doom descended.
Was it the right choice? To leave the Shrouded Mountain guys?
I didn’t know.
They were exhausted and defeated already. Maybe I was too soft. But when I saw them and they just folded over… well… some of the fire faded.
I hesitated. I didn’t want to kill them. I didn’t want to kill anybody. Maybe some of this could be resolved with words still. Maybe not everybody had to die.
I didn’t like the deal I had made. I didn’t want to just let this go. But what could I do right then? If I forced the issue, there would be a war. A war the Azure Hills would lose.
What could I have done? I wasn’t some sort of master negotiator. Nobody was happy with the outcome, but I couldn’t really think about it right now.
I followed the spectral chicken, one of Big D’s techniques, to the blazing fire and the man screaming with rage and hate. His eyes were wild. He had small silver cuts trailing around his body.
But he was familiar looking. Even with his black sclera and red eyes. Even when coated by a miasma of blood and oil.
He was the bastard who had tried to take Meihua, a year ago.
When I had taken him to jail…. Well, I had no real expectation of him living. The sects really didn’t like people impersonating them. I knew, when I delivered him to that jail cell, I would never see him again.
But I was wrong. Even then, I had been stronger. Even then, I had managed to defeat a Young Master of the Shrouded Mountain Sect.
Fire rained down around him. His eyes were wild.
He was the kind of man that couldn’t be reasoned with.
[Blood Arts: Strength of the Feast]
I felt the pulse from the man. Big D and Xiulan both screamed. I felt the grass wither. I felt the ugly, gaping void that he spawned.
And then the eruption of fire that threatened to consume both of them.
He was nothing but a rabid beast, wasn’t he? And every farmer knew what to do with one.
…No farmer ever enjoyed it.
I took a breath.
Do you want me to do it?
No. We’ll do it together.
Everything I had ever run away from. Every piece of cultivator bullshit, all in one person. Attacking my friends, my family. All of it was right here, culminating in this fucking asshole.
I clenched my fist, and felt something like approval. Small arms around my neck. Lips pressed to my forehead.
I stepped into the flames.
Lu Ban’s attack was to be the end of it.
Instead, oil, blood and fire was dispersed like water droplets being shaken from a leaf.
Between the rooster and the woman, a man stood. A man whose face had haunted Lu Ban’s nightmares for the past year.
Lu Ban’s fingers spasmed. The rooster and the woman turned, looking up at the man.
His eyes were cold and hard.
Lu Ban had taken too long. He hadn’t managed to defeat them in time.
He swallowed as the summer breeze, once so gentle, became unbearably hot.
“One chance to surrender.” Rou Jin stated simply.
Lu Ban’s face twisted. At the confidence. At the assurance. At a man with power looking down at him again.
Lu Ban snarled as he concentrated. His defences were prepared. He could possibly escape. He couldn’t fight him now but—
Rou Jin brought back his fist and the world shuddered with anticipation. The earth stilled even as the heavens churned.
Thin, golden cracks appeared. First, they formed from his knuckles, branching out up his arm like a virulent weed, all the way to his shoulder. Something shattered and broken, repaired with gold.
His eyes were clear and pure, full of resolve.
Crushing. Suffocating. The very land itself was staring at him with disgust.
It was a simple punch. The simplest of punches. The foundation of all cultivators, the first thing all warriors learned. His stance was wide and stable. His fist chambered like it was from a training manual.
A technique to be practised and refined. Diligently studied and then abandoned, as a cultivator learned better and more powerful techniques.
Lu Ban did not pause to see what would happen.
He threw himself backwards as fast as his body could carry him.
But there was a whisper on the wind, a chanting sutra from ages long past filling his ears as the gold spread, forming behind Rou Jin.
‘And so the great Ancestor, Shennong, commanded his disciple in the ways of preparing the fields. Till the land. Cut down the trees. Divert the waters—’
[BREAK THE ROCKS]
Feet drew power from the Earth. Hips twisted to refine it in the Core. The Core stabilized and channeled energy to the Shoulder. Shoulder pulled back Arm to condense Qi. Arm lengthened to send forward a Fist.
The Fist became a Blow.
With all the weight of the world behind it.
Rou Jin swung.
Lu Ban was away. Far away, beyond the man’s reach.
But the fist did not have to hit him to strike him.
All five of Lu Ban’s talismans activated. Treasures that each could survive a blow from the power of one in the Earth Realm.
There was a sound like breaking glass as all the talismans attempted to save Lu Ban.
The earth did not heave. The Heavens did not shatter. There was no devastation at all.
One moment, Lu Ban was a form in the air, and the next….
He was gone.
The birds chirped cheerily, the little devils. They were always far too happy this early in the morning.
Ganshi examined the heads of rice growing from his field. The harsh, rocky soil and altitude wasn’t the best for growing the crop, but this year, things seemed to be different.
They were much larger than he was expecting. How had they grown so tall since he last examined them? He had only looked at them last week!
Well, after that fight last night, when the entire village rumbled, it was something welcome! The chickens wouldn’t stop crowing; the fence around the cows had toppled, and the only reason the cows didn’t escape was that they were too terrified to.
“Love, have you seen the size of these earth apples!” His wife asked, her eyes shining. “This is amazing!”
“I have,” Ganshi laughed, loving and sharing the joy his wife found in an unexpected bumper crop.
Indeed, they were twice as fat as they were last year! The rice seemed thrice as lush as last years, and even he himself seemed energized. It seemed everything was growing well.
But it was not just him. His neighbours too raved of their increased yields. So did the men of the next town over. And the next town after that.
It was as if the entirety of Yellow Rock Plateau had suddenly been blessed by the god of agriculture! Shennong was truly with them this year!
But there was a bit of a concerning story. Apparently, there had been a rockslide on Tianliyu Heights, a few hundred Li to the south, after a great something had impacted there.
Well it was pretty far away and nobody seemed hurt. Hopefully there wouldn’t be any more of those.
He smiled and walked to the edge of the plateau. It was always his favourite spot. You could see down across the Azure hills from here, and on a good day, without any mist, sometimes, you could even see the barest tip of the Dueling Peaks, a thousand Li distant.